Dec. 11, 2002
By Marty Benson
A recent hymn of would-be rules makers in the media has been that the three-point line is too close. Now that one of the experimental rules moves the line nine inches back, some are singing hallelujahs.
"I think it's too close," said University of San Francisco coach Phil Mathews, speaking of the current distance of 19 feet, 9 inches. "If you're going to get three points for it, it should be a more difficult shot. To some people, it's like a layup."
Perhaps a heavy accent should be placed over "some people," since guys who habitually drain the three are deceptively scarce, according to Division I cumulative statistics. The high-water mark for three-point accuracy was set in 1986-87, the rule's rookie year. Last season's figure of 34.6 percent mirrored the previous season's mark. The percentage has been consistently in that neighborhood since the 1993-94 season. At best, three-point success in Division I has remained fairly constant after dropping steadily the first few years.
Unquestionably, more threes are launched today. The amount has nearly doubled from 9.2 attempts per game in year one to last season's record of 18.3. Such frequency has no doubt factored in the lagging percentage.
"Poor shooters may not be as likely to take it as they are now."
Art Hyland, chair of the NCAA Men's Basketball Rules Committee
"Poor shooters may not be as likely to take it as they are now," Hyland said.
The extended three-point distance, which is the same as the international distance of 20 feet, 6 inches, will be used for all certified games (once known as exempt games) played before January 1. Two other experimental rules also will be used in those games. One widens the free-throw lane by 2 feet on each side; the other implements a new free-throw lane block. Also, for the first time, Divisions II and III schools have to use the experimental rules in their exhibition games.
Despite the importance of the other two experiments, it's the three-point line that grabs attention. Certainly the ability of some players to hit the shot in their sleep and the vice of others shooting it on a whim were considerations, but the rules committee was really addressing how a deeper arc would relate to a wider lane. The experiment is not about making the bull's-eye smaller, even though that might be a byproduct.
The crux of the three-point experiment, as well as the others for this season, is space.
The only way to create more room on a 94 x 50-foot court that's limited to that size by construction in many places is to move the lines within those boundaries. With that in mind, here's the official explanation from a committee spokesman on the three-point-line rationale:
"We are trying to determine if it will open up the game, force teams to play more defense away from the basket, and assist in the problem area of rough low-post play."
Oops. Those were the words of the late Ed Steitz, the secretary-rules editor of the committee that voted in the three-point rule in the first place 16 years ago.
For this season's rationale, Hyland, who is in his second year as chair, assessed the rules committee's four-year-old initiative to clean up rough play.
"We have made progress but the post remains the area of biggest concern," he said. "People know that if you get the ball on the block (the 12 x 8-inch rectangle on either side of the first lane space), you most likely are going to score or get fouled. The offensive coach encourages his post player to get to the block and the defensive coaches tell their players to do everything they possibly can to keep players from getting to the block. That's where the rough play comes from.
"If we widened the lane, the player who gets the ball on the block is farther away from the basket and doesn't have as much of an advantage. He's got to make more of a move. He can't just drop-step and dunk. If he throws it back out, the longer three-point line should give the outside shooter more room. The extra nine inches, along with the wider lane, could also open the lane for more movement."
Ed Bilik, the committee's current secretary-rules editor who oversees the number crunching of experimental rules results, said that the data gathered from the experiments will be compared with that from last year's, which included the widened lane but left the three-point line as is.
"The committee was interested in the interplay between the two," Bilik said. "Where the three-point line is now, maybe it's too easy for defenses to double down on the post player or at least get in the passing lane to the post player.
"By moving the line back, we want to see if these maneuvers become more difficult to do successfully."
One coach who has observed first-hand how the international line changes spacing is the University of Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson, who assisted the U.S. team at this year's World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis. Sampson said that before becoming Worldly, he was ambivalent about moving the lane or the three-point line. Now, he advocates both.
"I think it would be good for us. But I think if we are going to do one, we need to do the other," he said, adding one more caveat.
"In college basketball, we need to make sure that we keep the game exciting for the fans and let the players show their skills. If that means keeping the three close so that more people can make it, then I think that's good. I'm anxious to see how (the experimental rules) work."
Accuracy is, of course, one of the main things the committee will be examining. For the extended three-point line to have its desired effect, the shot has to be made with regularity.
Monmouth University coach Dave Calloway, who led the country in three-point accuracy while playing for his current school in 1989, said he thinks most players who shoot the trey successfully now would still be able to do so at the experimental distance.
"The guy who can make it now consistently is the same guy who can shoot from 16 or 17 feet consistently and that extra distance isn't going to make any difference to him," Calloway said.
Although he likes keeping the rules the way they are, Calloway agreed that a new three-point line would help spread the defense, at least for a while.
"Teams will eventually adjust to it and overcome it," he said. "Whatever change you make, there is a way to get around it that will lessen its intended effect. I think the line is fine where it is now."
Les Robinson, director of athletics at The Citadel, was coaching the Bulldogs in 1980 when the Southern Conference started a three-point experiment that spawned the current rule. During that season, in which Western Carolina University's Ronnie Carr notched the first successful three, Robinson was quoted in newspapers as saying, in support of the concept: "The players are getting so much bigger, we need something to spread things out a little more."
Twenty-two years later, Robinson said he still likes the three at 19-9, citing the low shooting percentages.
"We're not shooting as good a percentage because shooting has become a lost art," he said. "Moving it out would only take away the emphasis on it because fewer people would shoot it. With the current line, more people are in range to shoot it.
"I think 20-6 is too long. The way it is now, you have to defend the guy. If you look at the teams that shoot it a lot, most of them are shooting it very close to the line, so I'm anxious to see if the shot will be made in these games. My guess is that the percentages will go down."
Two of the coaches who have used the three perhaps more than anyone else are Craig Carse of Division II Montana State University-Billings and Dave Arsenault of Division III Grinnell College. Despite their offenses' reliance on the shot, neither coach seemed concerned that an increase in distance was being considered.
Until last year when the presence of a 6-11 player encouraged Carse's team to work the ball inside more, Montana State-Billings had led Division II in three-point shots made per game every season since 1996.
"I think the international line is ideal," Carse said. "I don't think moving the line back would affect what we do in creating space for ourselves. It actually would help us by giving us more space and by giving the other team more space to defend.
"It would help both the inside and the outside game. You're not talking about much of a distance, but you are opening up a lot of space, and the more spacing, the better. I'd also like the wider lane."
Carse predicted there would be fewer threes attempted with a longer shot. Despite the drastic rise in the number of threes attempted over the years, he thinks his colleagues are reluctant to embrace the rule.
"I think so many are paranoid about shooting it now that (a move back) would lower the amount taken," he said.
Arsenault's team has led Division III in three-pointers made per game every year since 1994. He said that most teams would make a somewhat lower percentage at a distance of 20-6, but nothing appreciable. Much like Carse, he would support a change in distance because it would give his players more room.
"It's become a chess match against us," Arsenault said. "Teams started out standing inside the three-point line to defend us; now they straddle it. I don't have my kids get within a foot of the line now, so I think we'd be comfortable with the line farther out."
Hyland said that the rules committee won't make any change without considerable deliberation and input or, possibly, more experimentation, because the rule is too important.
"I never thought (the three) would become as much a part of the game as it has," he said. "As I look over the years, I don't think there is any other change that has had as much of an effect on the game as the three-pointer."
Hyland also explained that while the three experimental rules are being used as a package this season, it doesn't necessarily follow that they will be enacted (or dismissed) as a package.
"It's possible to do one and not the others or not to do any at all," he said.
If either the wider lane or an extended three-point arc is adopted, a change in floor markings would be required, causing fiscal fallout. According to Doug Hamar, president of Horner Flooring, which the NCAA uses for the Final Four, if existing lines were kept and new lines were added, putting a new three-point line on each end of the court would cost about $500. The cost for adding a widened lane on each end and maintaining the current lane would be about the same.
As with any other rule that involves expense, a proposal to change court markings would have to be approved by the respective division governing bodies in order to take effect and would likely require a budget-adjustment period.
Near the turn of the new year, when the certified games have nearly concluded, surveys will be sent to each coach whose team played with the experimental rules.
Participating teams' statisticians also will fill out forms during the games that use experimental rules, then return them to Bilik for tabulation.
Later in the season, questions about the experimental rules, their effect on the game and whether they should be implemented will be included in the committee's annual questionnaire that is sent to all coaches, officiating coordinators and conference commissioners in all divisions.
Although the committee is not bound to follow the results of the surveys, Hyland said its members look forward to reviewing the results, saying the committee will not only be interested in the statistical data obtained but also in the answers to subjective questions, such as "did you like the way the game flowed?"