North Carolina's Roy Williams and Gonzaga's Mark Few were a day from meeting for the 2017 national championship with teams relying heavily on imposing front lines. And the coaching buddies couldn't overlook one oddity.
“He said, ‘You know, this is strange — it’s the first time all year long that we've had to defend a team with two big guys, it's been go chase the 3-point shot,'” Williams recalled Few saying.
“I said, ‘But Mark, look around. ... We’re the only two left standing," Williams said.
It's a moment the now-retired Hall of Fame coach said the two have chuckled about since. It illustrates how much college basketball has changed since the arrival of the 3-point shot for the 1986-87 season. It has certainly been a factor in The Associated Press Top 25 men's college basketball poll as it turns 75 years old.
There have been more upsets and more turnover at the top as the shot became a rankings-altering fixture.
“It’s the equalizer,” said Williams, who won three NCAA titles at UNC before stepping aside in 2021. “In the old days, three or four teams would rotate 1-2-3 in the country, and those were the most talented teams, and a lot of years those were the teams that had the best big men or best people the attacked the rim.”
It's certainly made things more interesting, and volatile considering how the shot itself has made even the best of teams vulnerable to a hot-shooting upstart.
In the poll's first 38 seasons before the 3-point shot, there were an average of 2.61 teams to hold the No. 1 ranking each year. That average has increased to 3.95 in the 37 seasons that followed with the 3.
Before the 3, there were 10 seasons in which one team went wire-to-wire at the top all season. There have been only four since, most recently Few's Zags in 2020-21.
There were only three seasons with at least five different teams holding the No. 1 ranking before the 3-pointer. In the years since, that number has swelled to 16.
And it's been easy to see that impact so far in this season's upsets. Look no further than current No. 2 Purdue, led by 7-foot-4 Zach Edey as the returning AP national player of the year, seeing Northwestern and Nebraska shoot a combined 24 of 43 (56%) from behind the arc in stunning upsets when the Boilermakers were ranked No. 1.
ACC Network analyst Luke Hancock, the most outstanding player of the 2013 Final Four in Louisville’s later-vacated title run, said the 3 has long offered smaller teams a way to compete by offsetting a size or talent disadvantage.
“It's spacing, it's creating driving lanes,” Hancock said. “Everybody's talking about paint touches and then kicking to open shooters. ... It's how you have to counter if you're not as big and athletic as Zach Edey or (Kentucky's) Oscar Tshiebwe.”
Everyone is chasing it in recruiting, too.
“Man, it's the most important thing,” Duke associate head coach Chris Carrawell said. “In today's game, you have to be able to shoot the ball with range, and range is the 3-point line. It's hard to be a great player in today's game without having the ability to shoot the ball. It just is."
Williams long preferred a two-post lineup, partly to attack the glass and fuel transition chances but also to get to the line and put other teams in foul trouble. Yet he also embraced the 3 to further elevate some of his top teams.
The 2005 team that won Williams' first NCAA title ranked seventh nationally in 3-point percentage (.403) to aid Sean May inside. The 2009 title winner — which spent nine weeks at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 — ranked 20th (.387) in an offense built around Atlantic Coast Conference all-time leading scorer Tyler Hansbrough inside.
Carrawell pointed to another example: the 2017-18 Villanova team led by AP national player of the year Jalen Brunson. That squad spent eight weeks at No. 1, ranked third nationally by making 11.6 3s per game and romped its way to a second NCAA title in three seasons.
It's no coincidence that Jay Wright's Wildcats posted the second-most efficient season ever charted by KenPom (scoring 127.8 points per 100 possessions) dating to 1999.
“They just carved teams up because they were able to space you, they had everybody on the court who was a threat,” Carrawell said. "So you had to pick your poison, and they just broke you down, they were able to get to the rim, and they were able to make you pay from the 3-point line.
"That's modern-day basketball,” he said. “And it's a great brand to watch, I'm not going to lie.”
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