Monday, March 28, 2011

How Big is the Three?

In my last post, way back on Super Bowl Sunday (a/k/a The Day Dunn was convinced it was finally time for an OT Super Bowl - long story), I went to great lengths to break down what I view as the deterioration of the quality of play in college basketball. Let's just say that my comments were met with some support and with some suggestions to do unspeakable things to myself. Pretty much like most of my comments on most subjects. At the very least, though, I touched a nerve, which was somewhat gratifying. Now that we are quickly approaching what is going to be a historic Final Four, fear not. I have not returned to poop on the lawn that is the best weekend in college basketball. Granted, many of the games in this tournament have been horribly hard on the eyes (yes, I'm talking to you Butler and Wisconsin, among others), but even I have to admit that the excitement of the tournament still delivers. I would, however, point out that there is a difference between an "exciting" game and a "good" game, but again, I'm not here to beat a dead horse (can we still use this expression in the post Mike Vick world?...I'll just move on).

My purpose here is to offer my answer to the questions I've heard a thousand times (not literally...it's a writing device) over the past few weeks, and especially over the last 24 hours: How do these mid-majors keep pulling these upsets?; and how in the hell is VCU in the Final Four?

Well, for starters, I still maintain that a lot of the rationale set forth in my previous post provides insight into these answers (i.e. talent and skill levels diluted due to one and dones, AAU, Lindsay Lohan dropping her last name, etc...), but among all the points I made below, I think the one that has gained the most validation in this tournament (at least in my own tortured mind) is the fact that now, more than ever, the three point shot wholly dominates the college game. By way of illustration, let's look at some of the biggest upsets of the tournament, and we will end with VCU run:

#12 Richmond over Vandy - 43% of Richmond's FG attempts were 3 point shots. They took 24, and they made 12 for a 50% clip. Vandy, on the other hand, made half as many 3's. Fair to say the +18 differential from behind the arc was key in the Spiders' 3 point win? Now, the flip side of this equation ultimately reared its ugly head against the Spiders when they took on Kansas in the Sweet 16. In that game, Richmond hoisted 40% of its FG attempts from behind the arc, but they only made 4 out of 26. Yep, that's a whopping 15.4%. Their shooting performance was so poor that I'm pretty sure the game was relegated to TruTV's awful HD in the second half.

#8 Butler over #1 Pitt - So, those pesky Bulldogs took 52% of their shots from behind the arc, and they made 12 of their 27 attempts (44.4%). Couple that with the most ridiculous foul call....never mind. Butler won.

#8 Butler over #2 Florida - This one blew my mind. Butler took 55% of their shots from behind the arc - a total of 33 shots from three point range. Now, they only made 9 of them. But, when you consider Florida threw up two ridiculous 3's at the end of regulation and OT after having only made 3 such shots the entire game (I will spare you a whole other rant on the atrocious end of game management we've seen in this tournament), you again find a +18 three point margin, which I would venture to say was fairly decisive in a three point OT win over the worst coached program to ever win back to back national championships. Okay, I spared you the rant, but I had to throw in a snarky comment. Thanks for your indulgence.

Now, let's look at VCU:

Play in game (I refuse to call it round 1): They drain 9 threes. USC connects on a shockingly gruesome grand total of 1 three. That's a +24 margin for those keep score at home.

Round 1: Against Georgetown, the Rams took 57% of their field goal attempts from behind the arc, and made 48% of them (12 for 25). Now, consider the fact that they only made 18 FG's in the entire game! How in the world do you beat a Big East school when you only make 18 FG's in a game? Well, when that Big East School takes half it's field goal attempts (26) from behind the arc and makes only 5 of them (19.2%), you are looking pretty good. If you are John Thompson The Original, did you ever think you would see a day that the Hoyas would out rebound an opponent by 10, make 58% of its 2 point shots, and lose by 18 points? Pretending I am John Thompson The Original, I will simply say "no".

Round 2: The Purdue game doesn't really help illustrate my point, so I'm calling it an aberration, and I'm moving on. Hey, this is my blog, I make the rules.

Sweet 16: The Rams took 26 threes (49% of their field goal attempts), and they made 12 (46.2%). FSU only made 7 of 19 threes, but they did out rebound VCU 45-28 and 20-5 on the offensive glass. In other words, even with the +15 from behind the arc, VCU only won this game because FSU proved what we all have known for quite some time: FSU can't score from anywhere on the floor, even under the basket. Honestly, this is the most amazing box score of the tournament. In addition to the ridiculous rebounding numbers, FSU put up a staggering 18 more field goal attempts than VCU and still managed to lose. Forget all my theories about AAU, I'm going to start blaming the demise of college basketball on Leonard Hamilton...and Rick Barnes, of course.

Elite 8: This is where it gets fun. This is where the insanity should have stopped and VCU should have gone back to Richmond with a great story to tell as they watched Kansas play in the Final Four next weekend. But, luckily for us, we have Bill Self and his phenomenal game plans and in game adjustments. Check out these numbers: VCU, the grossly undersized and out manned team, takes 47% of its field goal attempts from deep and hits 12-25 (48%). At this point, I think it's worth noting that this is the same VCU team that shot 37% from three in the regular season (translation: they are collectively out of their minds right now). So, the Rams shot great. That's awesome for them, but that really shouldn't matter for the Jayhawks, who have an incredible size advantage and should be able to get whatever shot around the basket whenever they want it. So, how did Kansas counter? Well, of course, in true Selfian fashion, they proceed to throw up 21 threes. They make 2 of them (9.5%). I'm going to put that a different way: Kansas, the team with the size, talent, and jersey advantage (you know, the "we're effing Kansas, your VCU" advantage) decided to stop running an offense and throw up brick after brick from beyond the arc. The result, of course, is that Shaka Smart is going to increase his bank account by about $2 million/year come Tuesday of next week, and we are going to witness a national semifinal on Saturday that could feature 80 three point shots and 70 total points scored. Don't think for a minute that's not possible.

The ultimate takeaway here is not that the three gives less talented teams a chance to beat more talented teams. That's not a revelation. We've known that ever since Billy Donovan was learning all he knows from Rick Pitino at Louisville. Well, everything except for how to coach a team in the final minutes of a close game. No, the real takeaway here is that when the more talented teams are willing to engage in a three point battle with these less talented teams, they are placing themselves on equal footing with the less talented teams, and upsets are no longer possible, they are as equally likely to happen as not (by the way, that is what "equal footing" means. I enjoy being redundant from time to time).

Think of it this way: when I was a little kid (say around 7 or 8), I played my older neighbor, Brian, one on one every day. Brian was probably 6 or 7 years older than me, and he was bigger and stronger than me (he was also very kind for taking the time to play basketball with the brat across the street). So, I would tell him he was only allowed to shoot from behind an arbitrary line I would draw. Suddenly, his size and strength were neutralized, and I would manage to lose 21-4 instead of 21-0 (granted, he would let me score the 4). There came a time, however, when I could actually shoot a little, and Brian would no longer agree to stay behind that line, and the 21-0 beatings recommenced. Well, it's time that the more talented teams in college basketball stop letting the less talented teams keep them behind that arbitrary line because, if we know nothing else, we know that everybody now has the potential to get hot at the right time and shoot a little.