The three-point shot was assailed as a needless gimmick when it was introduced to all of college basketball 20 years ago. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski questioned why the NCAA was revolutionizing a sport that had long thrived on its fundamental merits. Bob Knight, still operating at Indiana, argued that the rule contained an innate bias since it works to the advantage of teams with better outside shooters.
Coaches adjusted, as they always do. The three-pointer became a staple of the college basketball scene. The added value of a shot drained from 19 feet, 9 inches or beyond increased the relevance of the little man, as was its intent. Double-digit deficits no longer appeared as foreboding as a hike up the Himalayas. College basketball has, in many ways, benefited from the arrival of the three.
But there's reason to wonder whether the three-point shot has become excessive in its importance, steered the game away from its rudimentary elements. Sunday's Atlanta Regional final between LSU and Texas loomed as a clash of inside forces, a flashback to the days when teams pounded the ball into the paint with fierce determination.
So what happened? Texas, the nation's leading rebounding team, a squad with an abundance of front-line firepower, opted to have nothing to do with LSU's low-post athleticism and girth. The Longhorns, never far in arrears until late in the overtime, nonetheless unleashed 29 shots from beyond the arc. Brad Buckman, a 6-foot-8 forward, retreated to the perimeter and attempted eight threes, six more than his season average.
The concerns that Larry Brown expressed 20 years ago while coaching Kansas ring truer than ever. "I think the three-pointer has merit, but I'm a little confused about the distance," Brown said. "I don't want it to be such an easy shot that it really becomes more important than anything, because I don't think that's the purpose."
Brown's fears prove more valid with each passing season. In the first round of this NCAA Tournament, 29 teams made at least 33 percent of their threes. Eleven shot 50 percent or better. Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, the leading scorer in the country, shot 43.7 percent on his treys this season. Duke's J.J. Redick, the runner-up, cashed 42.1 percent.
Coaches have done the math. If a team takes 100 two-pointers and shoots 45 percent, which is about the norm, it scores 90 points. If it takes 100 threes and shoots 33 percent, the roundabout average, it scores 99 points.
No wonder there's been a dearth of dominant low-post players in college basketball the last two decades. Look at the difficulty in guarding the perimeter, especially with more teams than ever screening up top. The three comes far more easily than the inside two and many a coach has tailored his offense accordingly. Meanwhile, the mid-range jumper became a dinosaur.
The theory goes that the three-point shot levels the competition between mid-majors and the major-conference teams, who traditionally are taller and deeper. That might have been true during the early days of the three, but major programs were quick to bring in players to fill the role of long-range shooter, negating any advantage the mid-majors may have gained. George Mason is the first mid-major to make the Final Four since the three became part of the basketball landscape. There were two, Penn and Indiana State, in 1979. Progress, that isn't.
Without a doubt the three has a place in college basketball, but that place should be 20 feet, 6 1/4 inches from the basket, just as it is in international play. The current three has become too easy a shot. Teams have grown overly enamored with its potential impact. Multifaceted big players (Duke's Shelden Williams) are being overshadowed by one-dimensional snipes (Redick). It's time to redraw the line.