Print and Go Back ESPN.com: College Basketball Nation [Print without images]

Thursday, November 3, 2011
For mid-majors, 3-pointer no minor feature

By Dana O'Neil

He made a career out of tilting at windmills and slaying dragons, the ultimate underdog in a game in which bigger and stronger is supposed to equate to better.

He was craftier, that’s always been the argument. Pete Carril was able to conjure up an offensive scheme that put his Princeton teams on equal footing with their more talented foes.

Actually, above all else, Carril is practical.

Three, he knows, is worth more than two.

Jamie Skeen, Skaka Smart
Forward Jamie Skeen was one of the key 3-point shooters for coach Shaka Smart during Virginia Commonwealth's run to last season's Final Four.
“Sometimes we had centers and forwards smaller than our guards, so who were you going to post up?” Carril said. “So what we had, we had 3-point shooters and we made a lot of 3s. They add up.’’

There is, it turns out, genius in simple math.

The 3-point shot, celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, has revolutionized the game. Post play is no longer as crowded as a New York City subway at rush hour, defenses are stretched across the floor and the little man is more than just a dribbler.

Perhaps less noticeable to the naked eye, the 3 also has given rise to the mid-major. Parity has hit the college game for plenty of reasons -- the one-and-done rule leaves top teams without valuable experience and leadership; television has exposed recruits to more and more teams; name-branding from the NCAA tournament -- but it would be foolish to overlook the impact of the 3.

“It isn’t an equalizer in the game,’’ Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart said. “It is the equalizer.’’

Smart should know. His Rams toed the arc all the way to Houston and the Final Four last season, connecting on 61 of 143 (42.7 percent) of their 3s compared to just 31-of-113 (27.4) by their opponents.

In perhaps their most difficult step, the Elite Eight game against Kansas, VCU knocked down 12-of-25 from long distance to just 2-of-21 for the Jayhawks.

But VCU is hardly the first team to expose its heftier opponents by draining 3s. In some of the most memorable upsets and Cinderella runs in college basketball, there is one common denominator -- 3-point shooting.
“When you are truly undersized and undermanned, it changes everything,’’ Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “It doesn’t have to be someone in particular who can shoot it, but you have to some reliability. One of the reasons we went to the national championship game is because Matt Howard hit five 3s his first year and 53 as a senior. We don’t go if we can’t stretch the floor with him.’’

Chris Mack found out just how hard it is to win without a 3-point shooter. A year ago, Brad Redford tore his ACL before the season, sidelining the 42 percent shooter for Xavier. Mack's Musketeers went on to a more than respectable 24-8 record but were bounced short of their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 by Marquette.

The double dip of extra attention paid to Tu Holloway and Xavier’s 2-of-13 shooting from the 3-point line doomed the Musketeers in that game.

“Having Brad back does two things for us,’’ Mack said. “It makes our other players better because the floor is so much more spread out. It makes our penetrators better because they have less help-side [defense] to navigate through, but it almost becomes a 4-on-4 game because you can’t leave him. We’re a much more dangerous team because he’s as automatic as they come.’’

The challenge for mid-majors, or any coach for that matter, is finding guys who can hit a 3. As teams continue to go away from the traditional power forward, relying more and more on guys who are more versatile at the 4 position, recruits who can hit a 3 are at a premium.

Consequently coaches who might be second in line in the pecking order are forced to develop good shooters if they can’t recruit them.

Which begs a chicken-or-egg question: Are great 3-pointer shooters born or can they be created?

The answer is both. Right now Stevens has one of the best 3-point shooters in the game sitting on the bench -- Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke. In three years, Clarke has drained 274 3s.

But over the course of time Stevens also has turned guys into 3-point shooters.

Along with Howard, Stevens helped coax Willie Veasley into a 3-point shooter. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Veasley didn’t even attempt a 3-point shot. By his senior season, he drained 45.

There’s no trick involved, just commitment from a player and dedication from a coach.

“When you see a guy consistently make a shot from 18 feet and you move him back to 20, if he struggles from there people tend to say, ‘Well, that’s not your range,'’’ Carril said. “I never listened to that. There’s not much difference between 18 and 20 feet.’’

No, but there’s a world of difference for a mid-major team that can hit a 3-pointer.