Behind the arc: Live by the three, die by the three?

The three-point line changed the face of basketball since the 1980s, although it had been tested to varying degrees before that time. These days, the 3-pointer is second-nature to basketball players and fans. It’s a safe bet that nobody under the age of 30 has any recollection of watching college or pro basketball without a 3-point line.

When I played basketball and started officiating basketball, there was no 3-point line. But contrary to the opinion of one young official, I wasn’t officiating games back in the day of peach baskets.

I’m a fan of the 3-point rule, but there are times I wonder if teams fall in love too much with the 3-point shot.

The problem is the shot is not that difficult for good shooters or even average shooters. In the NBA, the arc is 23 feet 9 inches from the basket. In college basketball, the arc is 20 feet 9 inches from the basket. The distance is only 19 feet 9 inches in high school basketball.

A player’s feet must be completely behind the line at the time of the shot or jump in order to make a 3-point attempt. Otherwise, it’s a 2-point attempt.

On the surface, the strategy is pretty simple and enticing—shooting 33.3 percent from three is the same as shooting 50 percent from two, so why not fire as many of those suckers as possible?

When teams have four or five shooters on the floor, they jack more threes.

The number of teams per year that have attempted at least 40 percent of shots from 3-point range has risen from 29 teams in 2005-06, to 82 teams in 2016-17.

The game has changed to the point that some coaches encourage players to take threes in transition rather than trying to score near the basket.

Consider this late-game situation: 35 seconds left, a two-point lead. Conventional wisdom suggests a high percentage shot, maybe taking the ball into the lane to try and draw a foul.

A 21-foot stepback behind the line is the last thing most coaches would want, but for some shooters, the option is very viable.

Even the big men are finding success from beyond the arc. For example, Wichita State has two players 6-foot, 8-inches or taller who are quite good at shooting beyond the arc for three points.

Basketball purists rightfully may complain that the mid-range jumper is a lost art today. Former coach C.M. Newton said his team totally did away with the mid-range jumper.

“We’re either going to shoot it from 3-point range or in closer. We absolutely just took that out of our offense,” Newton said.

The challenge for a coach today is how to defend a team with numerous 3-point shooters. When a player penetrates the defense and heads toward the basket, the natural tendency is for the defense to collapse and stop the ball. But a good guard is equally adept at finding a teammate standing just beyond the arc for a wide-open three.

When KU was upset by 22-point underdog Washington, 74-65, in December, the Huskies chose to give KU all the 2-point baskets it wanted in an attempt to limit the 3-point scoring.

“We’re not going to lose by the 3-point shot,” said Washington coach Mike Hopkins. Lagerald Vick scored a career-high 28 points on 12-of-23 shooting and KU shot 45 percent for the game, but just 25 percent (5-of-20) from 3-point range.

“They just took everybody away but Lagerald,” said KU coach Bill Self. “Even though Lagerald got his numbers, they weren’t real numbers because they dared him to make a layup a lot of times.”

On one hand, shooting threes makes a lot of sense, but there are times it’s fool’s gold.

When K-State lost 61-54 to Tulsa, the Wildcats only made four of 32 3-point attempts for 12.5 percent. On nights when the shots simply aren’t dropping, maybe the coach needs to remind his players to stop shooting so many 3-pointers for a period of time.

If you like a game where no lead is safe, you can partially thank two things—the 3-point line and the shot clock.

Hillsboro resident Joe Klein­sasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. You can reached him at Joe.Klein­sasser@wichita.edu