Three-Point Line: Breaking Down the Pros & Cons

May 16th, 2007

So the NCAA Rules Committee has recommended moving the three-point line back a foot, from 19’ 9” from the hoop to 20’ 9”. Over the past several days I have read numerous reactions to this proposed modification, which, if approved, will be implemented in the 2008-2009 season. Responses run the gamut from supportive to bitterly opposed, with quite a few doses of relative indifference lying indolently in the middle.

The primary issues are whether or not this change will have a significant impact on the game, and, if it does, whether that impact will be positive or negative. The answer to the first question is a definite yes.

To those who never played basketball, a difference of 12 inches may seem a minor adjustment, a temporary inconvenience that can be easily overcome. But those who have played the game know better.

Each player has a comfort zone in terms of shooting. For a few, that zone may be limited to two or three feet from the hoop; for others it may be 10 feet, or 12 feet, or 15, 16, or 18 feet. For a few it may be 21 feet.

As a Milwaukee Bucks’ fan during the era of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glen Robinson, I was often amazed at how Allen could almost effortlessly fire up 24-footers with astounding accuracy, while Cassell was deadly from 15-16 feet yet never seemed at ease from 18-20 feet. The Big Dog (Robinson) was unquestionably one of the top mid-range jump shooters in the game with a shot so technically and aesthetically perfect I was surprised when he missed. Yet this gifted shooter looked like a penguin waddling on land on those rare occasions when he shot from 20-plus feet, let alone from behind the NBA three-point line.

The simple fact is that for the overwhelming majority of players, the longer the shot, the more difficult it is to make. There are a few exceptions, of course, individuals who have a surer stroke from behind the present arc than from in front of it, but that has more to do with their being relatively open from three-point territory as opposed to being more closely guarded when they journey closer to the basket.

The players most affected by this proposed switch will be those who have decent form and touch right around 20 feet but lose one or both around 21 feet. How many D-1 shooters fit in this category is hard to pinpoint, but it will probably be sufficiently large to lead to two likely outcomes. The first is that those individuals will (hopefully) try fewer three-pointers; the second is that their percentage from behind the new arc when they do shoot treys will noticeably decline. Either consequence will have an effect on the college game; if both occur, the impact will be considerable.

During the 2006-2007 season, the median three-point shooting percentage for ACC teams during the regular conference season was 35.1%. For the Big East that figure was 33.4%, for the Big 10 it was 34.1%, for the Big 12 it was 36.3%, for the Pac 10 it was 36.1%, and for the SEC it was 35.7%. With the proposed modification to 20’9” these figures should drop. There will be, quite simply, fewer attempted and fewer made three-pointers.

This past season, the median number of three-point attempts per conference game for SEC teams was 21.2 per game, the most of any of the six high-major conferences. The median number for Big East teams was 19.4 per game, for Big 12 teams 18.2 per game, for Big 10 teams 17.6 per game, for ACC teams 17.4 per game, and for Pac 10 teams 17.3 per game. These numbers should drop dramatically, especially the second or third year after the new rule is implemented.

Fewer trey attempts obviously means less reliance on three-point shooting, which, it seems to me, is the primary intent of the change in the first place. Last season, 24 of 73 teams (32.9%) in the previously-mentioned conferences averaged at least 20 trey attempts per game. That number could well be reduced to only a handful of teams by Year 3 of the rule change.

The second issue is whether or not this modification will be a plus or a minus for college hoops fans. In the short term there will certainly be some teeth-gnashing among those who profess that the game ain’t broke, so why “fix” it? And there is no arguing that the college game is incredibly popular by any standard of assessment.

Others, however, assert that the game has become too perimeter-oriented and needs to regain a greater sense of balance on the offensive end of the floor. One statistical measurement lends credence to that perspective.

An examination of the percentage of a team’s shots that were taken from behind the arc shows what, for me, was a surprising picture of the college game. A total of nine out of 16 Big East teams took at least 33.0% of their shots from behind the arc. For the Big Ten that figure was eight of 11, for the Big 12 it was seven of 12, for the Pac 10 it was five of 10, and for the SEC it was eight of 12. Only the ACC (three of 12) fell below at least 50% of conference teams taking at least one of three shots from beyond the arc. Overall, 40 of these 73 teams averaged at least one of three shots from three-point territory.

In fact, breaking the stats down even further, one school (West Virginia) was over 50% (52.1%), while seven others – Louisville, Oregon, California, Nebraska, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Northwestern – were between 40% and 50%. On the other end of the spectrum the data is just as striking: only four teams – Virginia Tech, Maryland, Kansas, and North Carolina – were below 25.0%, and two of the four made it by a hair (Kansas at 24.8% and UNC at 24.9%).

Granted, these stats are skewed somewhat by fouls as there is no question that fouls occur much more frequently on drives and power moves to the hoop than on three-pointers. Still, the figures do show a substantial – some would argue an inordinate – percentage of shots is taken from behind the arc.

Will this rule change lead to fewer points scored? Not necessarily. Fewer points will be scored from long distance, but that reduction should be offset by more points scored in the lane and from mid-range.

The proposed change to 20’ 9” should be given a shot (no pun intended). I don’t like the idea that for a majority of teams (at least high-major teams) at least one third of all shots are three-pointers. If the number of three-point attempts declines, that’s a plus for college hoops fans.