2008-2009 Season

Three Point Musings

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Villanova by the Numbers has been investigating the effect that moving the three point line back a foot had on last year’s college basketball season. Nova by the Numbers focused on how Luke Winn’s predictions from a little over a year ago look in retrospect. Winn’s hypothesis was that the biggest winners from the move would be teams that don’t rely on the three point shot or defend the three point line well. The losers would be perimeter oriented teams that shoot a lot of threes and teams that make a low percentage of their three point shots in general.

The hypothesis makes so much sense that it almost seems rudimentary. Judging by Michigan’s 2007-2008 statistics, they should have been negatively affected by the move (and that’s probably an understatement). The 2007-2008 Michigan team was one of the worst in the country at making (31.2%) and defending (38.1%) three point shots yet they still shot 40.7% of their field goal attempts from behind the arc.

So how did Michigan deal with the move? They shot even more three point shots at a slightly higher percentage. (They also made a dramatic improvement in three point defense — their opponents shot 31.1% compared to 38.1% in 2008.)

Michigan kept on chucking and somehow found success, going from 10 to 21 wins in only a season.  The three point shot is obviously a staple of the Beilein offense.  Therefore it’s not surprising that Michigan was more reliant on the three point shot than any other NCAA tournament team.

Top 10 3FGA/FGA for NCAA Tournament Teams (National Rank to the left, NCAA seed in brackets)

  7 Michigan[10] (B10)               47.9
 11 Arizona St.[6] (P10)             45.3
 13 Butler[9] (Horz)                 45.2
 15 Portland St.[13] (BSky)          44.8
 26 Oklahoma St.[8] (B12)            41.3
 29 Chattanooga[16] (SC)             41.2
 38 Akron[13] (MAC)                  40.0
 40 Mississippi St.[13] (SEC)        39.7
 54 Utah[5] (MWC)                    38.4
 58 American[14] (Pat)               38.1

That list is an eye opener. There are very few high major teams in that group, only Arizona St., Oklahoma St., and Mississippi St, and none of the top ten made it passed the second round.

This clearly isn’t a strategy that is replicated often with success at the high major level. Of those four high major teams, Michigan’s 33.4% three point shooting percentage was the worst among the group by a pretty significant margin. It’s clear that perimeter oriented teams were adversely affected by the three point move.

beileinNova By the Numbers points out that three of the ten interior oriented offenses that Winn identified before the season ended up in the Final Four (UNC, UConn, and Michigan State). Perimeter oriented offenses didn’t perform so well but I’m not sure John Beilein is too concerned as his tournament success is well documented. Despite the success of interior oriented teams, John Beilein’s teams still perform better against their seed than any other college coach.

Michigan’s three point shooting numbers are even more shocking when you realize that Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims combined to take 64% of Michigan’s 2 point field goals. Stu Douglass (80.3%) and Zack Novak (77.8%) took the highest percentage of their shots from long range on the team with more than 3 out of every 4 field goal attempts coming from behind the arc. Seven players on the Michigan roster took 65% or more of their field goal attempts from three point range. Only Jevohn Shepherd, Zack Gibson, DeShawn Sims, and Manny Harris took more than half of their shots inside the arc.

I’ve mentioned high variance strategies in the past (explained here) and there is no doubt that relying on the three point shot qualifies as a high variance strategy. To most in the college basketball world, three point shooting is typically thought of as an underdog  strategy marred with desperation. The common thought is that truly great teams will pound the ball inside rather than shoot away.  However, John Beilein’s best teams actually appear to shoot more three point shots than his teams that struggle.


 Michigan      2009 21-14 (7)      47.9
 Michigan      2008 10-22 (42)     40.7
 West Virginia 2007 27-9  (5)      49.0
 West Virginia 2006 22-11 (2)      51.4
 West Virginia 2005 24-11 (7)      45.9
 West Virginia 2004 17-14 (25)     40.1
 West Virginia 2003 14-15          37.6

John Beilein coached teams play their best when they favor a strategy that is generally frowned upon in the basketball world. The numbers tell the whole story last year: Michigan succeeded by shooting a lot of threes (7th) even while making a low percentage (195th).

The question is what happens going forward — does Michigan continue to shoot so many three point shots or do they revert toward a more traditional style of play. Looking at John Beilein’s history, it is hard to imagine Michigan relying on the three ball any less than they did this year.

dmo driveThe first place potential change would come from would be the incoming freshmen class. Of the four scholarship players and two walk-ons, three players would be described as shooters first and foremost (Vogrich, McLimans, and Bartelstein). Jordan Morgan gives Michigan a big guy that they were lacking last year, but after knee surgery his impact is questionable. Eso Akunne is without a position, but he possesses a well rounded versatile game.

The one guy who has to potential to redefine the offense is Darius Morris. Darius has the ability to create for himself and others in a way that none of the point guards on last year’s roster could. If Darius can provide a threat to drive and score it would go a long ways toward making Michigan’s offense multi-dimensional and giving Michigan three guys who are a threat to score inside the arc rather than just two.

However, relying on a freshman point guard to reshape an offense is probably too much to ask for. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michigan shoot over 50% of their shots from long range next year but they need to improve their shooting percentage. When you shoot more three point shots than just about every other high major team in the country, you’re going to want to rank higher than 195th in percentage made.

The three point shooting issue is one that has confronted Beilein teams for years and there is no firm answer about what is right and what is wrong. For example, the three point shot was the reason Michigan trailed by 20 points versus Indiana at Assembly Hall (3-18 first half) but it was also what enabled the comeback (7-17 second half). The success that Michigan had last year despite not shooting a very high percentage says one of two things: the strategy really works or Michigan got very lucky.

The topics for discussion on this subject are endless, so let’s hear your thoughts in the comments and then maybe we can revisit this subject in a couple weeks with some follow up.

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