Deep shots and deep runs: How the three-pointer correlates to tournament success

There’s a funny pattern I’ve noticed about fans, myself included. In the midst of a given season, the storylines discussed between game days are largely predictable.

Guest post by Adam Drovetta

In any given season, the non-game storylines for Kansas basketball fans have usually been—in one order or another—the Big 12 standings; tournament and seeding outlook; past teams; recruiting; and one to two wildcards. In the case of the 2014-15 edition of the Jayhawks, those two wildcards were the bizarre saga of five-star big man Cliff Alexander and the team’s three-point shooting.

After Tuesday’s loss to Michigan State, the latter of those storylines found its way back to the forefront.

The anxiety regarding this team’s identity  and how it pertains to the three-pointer is understandable to a point. The Jayhawks have averaged fewer than 16 3PA/G in each of the last two seasons. Adding to it, of course, is Bill Self’s now infamous “fool’s gold” comment from last year.

You could argue that the frustration is even higher given the amount of sharp shooters on the squad.

But I’m not sure the anxiety shouldn’t be tempered a little considering this season is only two games old. Not to mention the fact that Kansas took 26 shots from beyond the arc in one of those games.

I’m not suggesting that three-point shooting shouldn’t be a storyline, but pre-Thanksgiving judgments on a college basketball team can be a little fluid.

But it got me thinking about the correlation between three-point attempts and NCAA Tournament success—both with regard to Kansas and the country as a whole.

I stuck with NCAA Tournament success for two reasons: First, I’m not sure anybody is questioning Self’s track record as a regular season coach. In his time at Kansas, his teams have done well enough in the regular season to earn a 4-seed or better in the Tournament every single year. There’s also something of a conference championship streak you may have heard about.

Second, Tournament success is how a team is judged and Self’s tournament record at Kansas, while still pretty impressive (27-11), does include a handful of first-weekend exits.

Going back to Self’s first year in charge of the Jayhawks (2003-04), Kansas has ranged between 15.4 3PA/G (2006-07) and 18.7 (2010-11). That range rarely strays very far from the mean of 16.7.

What’s interesting is that Self’s two worst Tournament performances—back-to-back first-round exits in 2005 and 2006—were on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to three-point attempts. Kansas averaged 18 shots from deep per game in 2005 and 16.4 in 2006.

Self’s best two Tournament performances—a 2008 title and a runner-up in 2012—saw the Jayhawks stay right around their average. The 2008 squad had 16.9 3PA/G and the 2012 team had 16.6. You could argue that this indicates 16.5-17.0 3PA/G is some kind of a sweet spot, but it’s probably too difficult to make that declaration with only two years of data. Plus, the 2008 squad shot it at a much better clip (39.7% vs. 34.5%).

Nationally, the range of three-point attempts among Tournament winners is anywhere from 14.9 (Kentucky, 2012) to 19.6 (Duke, 2010). The average National Champion during that time had 17.8 3PA/G. Of the 48 Final Four teams over that time, nine had 20 or more 3PA/G.

The average 3PA/G per Final Four team is on an upward trend during that time, from 16.8 in 2004 to 18.3 in 2015. It reached a peak in 2011 at 20.05 and fell off a cliff the next season all the way to 16.275. Since then it has hovered in between 18 and 18.5.

Kansas vs. Final Four teams, average three-point shots per game. Graphic by Adam Drovetta.
Kansas vs. Final Four teams, average three-point shots per game. Graphic by Adam Drovetta.

Self’s three-pointiest (definitely not a real term) team at Kansas won 35 games and went to the Elite Eight and Self’s least three-pointiest team at Kansas won 33 games and went to the Elite Eight.

Looking specifically at the this year’s team, they have two sharpshooters in Svi and Greene  (after Greene’s suspension ends), one good/really good shooter in Selden, and two point guards that—while you don’t want them taking the balance of your three-point shots—can still spot up on occasion.

Self has praised players like Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson for their ability to get open away from the ball and set themselves up for easy buckets inside. The ideal situation would be the current crop of big men improving in that regard. Because until somebody starts canning threes at a rate of about 67%, the best shot in basketball is still a sure-fire two-pointer.

That’s obviously not a strength of the bigs on this team, though. If and when Diallo starts suiting up, that could very well change. Until then, however, you’d like to see a marked increase in three-point attempts from last season.

Whether or not that will happen is anybody’s guess. But there is precedent for it. Kansas jumped from 15.4 three-pointers per game in 2006-07 to 16.9 in 2007-08. And I’m sure you remember what happened that year.