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Forget the First Four. The 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament didn't truly get under way until Thursday, March 17, at 1:53 p.m. Mountain Time in Denver. That's when a player you've never heard of, representing a school you only recently knew existed, launched a game-winning three-point shot that would eventually leave players in dark jerseys leaping in celebration and players in white wandering around in disbelief, their multimillionaire coach staring grimly at an unexpected early spring break. Goodbye fourth-seeded Louisville, hello No. 13 seed Morehead State. And welcome, Eagles senior Demonte Harper of Nashville, to the pantheon of NCAA tournament heroes.
Twenty-four years after it was adopted by college basketball, the three-point shot remains the NCAA tournament's signature image (see: Bryce Drew of Valparaiso, 1998; Mario Chalmers of Kansas, 2008; Ali Farokhmanesh of Northern Iowa, '10). It's the biggest momentum shifter and the greatest equalizer, the weapon of choice for the undersized and the underdogs. But this year, teams all over the bracket are relying heavily on it. The squads that advanced to the Sweet 16 are hitting at a 41.0% clip. Even top overall seed Ohio State, which is shooting 42.4% from the arc this season (best in the country), is making a sizzling 56.0% after two East Regional blowouts. As a result the tournament so far has been a three-for-all and a validation of Memphis coach Josh Pastner's tournament-eve prediction: "It's the teams that shoot the three well that are going to advance, this year more than others."
The decision to push the line back from 19'9" to 20'9" before the 2008--09 season has done little to staunch the deluge. Five years ago, when players were launching from closer in, tournament teams averaged 33.7% behind the arc. Entering this year's Sweet 16, teams were shooting 35.5%. "If you look at the best of the best of college three-point shooters, they aren't shooting on the line anyway," says Arizona assistant Archie Miller. "If you moved it back to the NBA range [23'9"], I think you'd see a significant dip in percentages. But I don't think that line being moved back has had a big effect on the players who can really shoot it."
There's little question a lot of players can. The triple has been impacting blowouts as much as upsets, and, in some cases, upsets that are blowouts. Consider Virginia Commonwealth, the fourth-place team from the Colonial Athletic Association. The Rams' inclusion in the tournament over Colorado or Virginia Tech sent ESPN's Dick Vitale, among others, into an apoplectic rant. Those critics have been shot down. VCU knocked off USC 59--46 in a First Four game in Dayton on March 16 behind nine three-pointers, then rushed to Chicago and hit 12 of 25 threes—including 6 of 10 by reserve Brandon Rozzell—to crush No. 6 seed Georgetown 74--56 two days later. And just in case the naysayers still weren't convinced, the Rams blew away No. 3 seed Purdue 94--76 on Sunday with another eight threes, bringing their three-game three total to 29.
Like VCU, Butler was another team that was on the bracket bubble just a few weeks ago and used the three to shoot down a tournament heavyweight. Matt Howard's free throw may have capped the wild finish in the Bulldogs' 71--70 upset of the Southeast region's No. 1 seed Pitt last Saturday, but it was teammate Shelvin Mack's seven threes that really killed the Panthers. A day later Marquette could point to one three in particular that allowed it to survive Syracuse: with 25.1 seconds left and the game knotted at 59, junior guard Darius Johnson-Odom connected from the top of the key, giving the Golden Eagles the lead for good and earning him praise from his coach, Buzz Williams, who marveled at his "big, big stones."
The three was also the primary weapon for Ohio State in its more expected advance to the Sweet 16. In a 98--66 demolition of George Mason, the Buckeyes hit 16 of 26 (61.5%) threes. Though the sniper in that game was senior David Lighty, who dropped 7 of 7 from downtown, the Buckeyes' usual assassin is 6'6" senior Jon Diebler. This year Diebler has taken 79.7% (220 of 276) of his shots from beyond the arc, and he's made a mind-blowing 50.0%, tied for second best in the country. Each basket, says Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals, represents hours of practice: "For every thousand shots Jon shoots, he makes one in a game. He's just a relentless practice shooter."
Not far behind Ohio State in the national rankings is Richmond (40.0%, eighth), Arizona (39.9%, 10th), Kentucky (39.6%, 11th) and Kansas (38.8%, 20th), all teams that reached the Sweet 16. The Jayhawks boast nine players who have made more than 10 threes this year, all of whom shoot 36.0% or better. Markieff Morris—a junior power forward who at 6'10" is an inch taller than his twin, Marcus, the Big 12 player of the year—has made 24 and, at 42.1%, is the most accurate long-range bomber on the team. "If you're a coach scouting us and you're looking at the box score, you're saying, Holy Moses, who do we back off of?" says Kansas director of basketball operations Barry Hinson.
Wisconsin's roster is likewise dotted with bigs who are as comfortable shooting three-pointers as they are posting up. Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz, two sophomore forwards from small towns in Minnesota who are 6'10" and 6'6", respectively, came off the bench to hit 4 of 5 three-pointers in the Badgers' 72--58 win over Belmont last Thursday. Two days later Bruesewitz, whose 220-pound body is as burly as his name suggests, made the biggest three-pointer of the Badgers' season when he connected from the right side to break a 61--61 deadlock with Kansas State that put Wisconsin ahead to stay in a 70--65 win.
The big man with an outside touch is still a novelty on some teams, but Wisconsin has been recruiting that player for years. In fact, the Badgers rarely recruit a kid of any size who can't shoot the three well. (Junior point guard Jordan Taylor, whose outside shooting has improved from 19.2% as a freshman to 43.6% this year, was an exception.) "You go into any high school gym in the country and the kids are either shooting threes or trying to dunk," says Badgers assistant Greg Gard. "My seven-year-old son, all he wants to do is see how far he can shoot it from the hoop or go do dunks on the Nerf hoop in his room."
Given the proliferation of shooters, it's no surprise that more teams are putting a special emphasis on perimeter defense. "Guarding the three is about as important a thing as you can do in college right now," says Miller.