A Step Back
The NCAA may lengthen the three-point shot to open up the game, but the stats suggest that the trey won't go away
WHEN THE NCAA installed the 19'9" three-point arc for the 1986--87 season, no one used it to greater advantage than Providence coach Rick Pitino, whose Friars shot their way to an unlikely berth in the Final Four. Yet Pitino was one of the loudest voices in support of the basketball rules committee's proposal earlier this month to move the line to 20'9" beginning in 2008--09. "The shot is way too easy," says Pitino, now the coach at Louisville. "It's good for high school but not for college, and it makes the spacing to the post too congested."
Teams had gone from taking a trey once out of every 6.4 field goal attempts in 1986--87 to a record high of once every 2.9 last season. The committee believes that moving the line back will not only discourage players from launching so many threes but also stretch defenses, which would decongest the lane and cut down on the banging inside. Says rules committee member Charlie Brock, the coach of Division III Springfield (Mass.) College, "Our hope is that by moving the line out a foot, [it will] move both the offense and the defense one more step out and open things up."
Don't bet on it. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose team buried 9.3 threes per game last season (11th best in the nation), was among the 56% of Division I coaches opposed to redrawing the arc, according to the results of the annual survey conducted by the rules committee. "I think players are going to back off, let people shoot the three and double down on the post," he says. "There will be only one or two guys out there you have to cover. Zone defenses are going to become even more effective."
Moreover, the farther distance may not be that much of a deterrent for players inclined to fire away. When the rules committee experimented with the three-point line at 20'9" during preseason games in 2005--06, it found that teams attempted just 2.9 fewer three-point shots and converted just 1.4% less than in those games that used the standard distance. There was even less difference in games that used the international arc of 20'6", which is why the committee chose to move the line a full foot back even though coaches preferred the international distance.
The committee considered another—and more surefire—way to open up half-court offenses and limit physical play: widening the lane from 12 feet to 14 or 15 feet, which would pull big men outside and clear more paths to the basket. The group ultimately chose not to adopt that measure because it was concerned about instituting too much change at once. (When a previous committee voted to install both the international three-point line and a wider, trapezoid-shaped lane in 2003, the uproar from coaches was so great that the decision was later reversed by an oversight committee.) The current committee also had to take into account the aesthetic ramifications of having so many different lines on the court, especially since the women's arc will remain at 19'9" for the foreseeable future.
Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, who will become chair of the rules committee in the fall, voted in favor of widening the lane. He says it's "likely but not inevitable" that change will eventually be adopted. First, however, the committee will need to discern what effect, if any, the new three-point line is having on the college game. "The refs have made rough post play a big point of emphasis, yet we were still seeing games where it was like a sumo match down there," Prosser says. "When the line was first put in, a lot of guys hated it. Coaches and players will adjust to this new line." If that adjustment comes quickly and easily, what is being hailed as a major change won't change much about the game after all.
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