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December 05, 2011
Twenty-five years ago college hoops drew a line in the hardwood. Scorned, reviled, embraced only by the desperate, it changed the game forever
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December 05, 2011

Trey Magnifique

Twenty-five years ago college hoops drew a line in the hardwood. Scorned, reviled, embraced only by the desperate, it changed the game forever

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For 13 years Robert Nyakundi's favorite three-pointer was the buzzer beater Valparaiso guard Bryce Drew nailed to upset No. 4 seed Ole Miss in the first round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. "That's one of the greatest of all time," says the SMU senior, who was a nine-year-old living in Arlington, Texas, when Drew hit the Shot. Playing in the driveway or in the park thereafter, Nyakundi says, "I tried to put myself in that moment—3, 2, 1, game-winner! I always wondered, How amazing would that be, to hit one for your school?" Last Jan. 26 he found out. With 1.1 seconds left and host Tulsa up 58--56, Nyakundi launched a three from the left corner that snapped through the net and broke a 10-game losing streak against the Golden Hurricanes. "It was a great feeling," he says. "And, yes, that's now my favorite three."

What college player doesn't share Nyakundi's fantasy of making a heroic, game-saving trey? If Division I coaches had had their way a quarter century ago, none would. When NCAA rules chair Ed Steitz instituted the three-point shot before the 1986--87 season, a chorus of coaches cried foul (65% were against the new rule, according to a rules-committee poll). "Ridiculous," declared Iowa State coach Johnny Orr at the time. "A farce," cried commentator Dick Vitale. "Next thing you know," carped USC coach George Raveling, "we'll have trained seals out there." SI was not a fan either, denouncing the "win-a-teddy-bear-at-the-carnival length" (then 19'9") and predicting that the game would devolve into "five stationary wimps unloading from the half-moon line, followed by their opposing number doing the same thing at the other end."

The Cassandras had it wrong, of course. Rather than being the agent of the game's ruination, the three has been the best thing to happen to it since Dr. Naismith decided to cut out the bottoms of the peach baskets. The trey is not only the game's great equalizer—"basketball's spread option," as Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard puts it—but it has also superseded the dunk as the game's home run, just as Steitz predicted it would. Moreover, the three has allowed for more action all over the court because defenses have to be extended. "If it wasn't for the three-point line, you wouldn't see all these great dunks and all these backdoor cuts," says Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

Nor would you see comebacks like the one Pitino's 1993--94 Kentucky squad pulled off at LSU, when the Wildcats, down 31 with 15:34 to go, hit 11 three-pointers on the way to beating the Tigers 99--95. Or the one executed by Presbyterian at No. 20 ranked Cincinnati on Nov. 19, in which the Blue Hose's Khalid Mutakabbir hit two threes in the last 1:17, including the game-winner with 7.6 seconds left, to help overcome a 15-point second-half deficit and shock the Bearcats 56--54.

And without the arc, Cinderella wouldn't have nearly as much fun at the ball. Pitino knows all about that too. Twenty-five years ago he was in his second year at Providence, a program that had been stuck near the Big East's cellar since the league's inception in 1979. "We had a very average-to-below-average basketball team [in 1986--87]," says Pitino, "so I was looking for a gimmick."

After playing an exhibition that season against a Soviet team that launched 28 threes, Pitino realized how his team could best use the new rule to its advantage; the Friars, he determined, would hoist 25 threes a game to supplement a relentless full-court press. That strategy, not to mention the 40.9% perimeter execution of 6-foot point guard Billy Donovan, took the Friars all the way to the Final Four.

Yet it was one of the shot's biggest detractors, Indiana's Bob Knight—he had compared Steitz to the inventor of the Edsel—who benefited most from the three that first year, even more so than Pitino's Friars. In 1986--87 the Hoosiers led the country in three-point percentage (50.8%) and won the NCAA championship behind the lethal perimeter shooting of 6'2" senior guard Steve Alford, whose seven makes from behind the arc in the 74--73 win over Syracuse is still the most in title-game history. "At least for that one year I think [Knight] liked the three," says Alford, now the coach at New Mexico.

No Division I team has shot better than 50% from three-point range since that first season. Nationally, teams have gone from shooting 9.2 per game and making 38.4% in 1986--87 to attempting 18.2 and making 34.3% in 2010--11. (Extending the line an additional foot for the 2008--09 season had no significant statistical impact.) The drop in accuracy is the result of better scouting, weaker shooters launching more often and, most important, evolving defensive priorities.

"You have to be able to take away the three," says Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who would like to see the line extended to the NBA distance of 23'9". "Because of that shot, you're never out of a game and no lead is ever safe. Simply put, the three is the difference between winning and losing."

The three is now so glorified that every player wants to shoot it, even guys who can execute that other highlight staple, the dunk. Nyakundi, whose 49.7% shooting from behind the arc was second in the country last season, is a 6'8" forward who leads his team in rebounds this season (5.3 per game). He likes dunking fine, he says, "but the three-pointer takes a lot more concentration because there's more pressure. It's always a gut check."

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