- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

When the NCAA announced it was moving back the 3-point line by a foot for men’s college basketball this season, most coaches and players just shrugged indifferently.

Most of those who had long lobbied for pushing back the arc scoffed at the insignificance of a 12-inch bump. Meanwhile, the few conservative coaches who objected to changing the game at all didn’t feel a foot was worth much flap.

“The shot is still way too easy,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of the move from 19 feet, 9 inches to 20 feet, 9 inches. “If they wanted to truly identify the best shooters and clear out the paint, they’d push the line back to between 22 feet and NBA range [23-9]. I think maybe you’ll see more zones, specifically more 3-2 zones. I think scoring will come down slightly, but I don’t think you’ll see dramatic changes.”

With a half-season sample available, the change might not rate dramatic, but it has been statistically substantive. Three-point shooting is down across the board. In every league and among the majority of individual teams, the game’s most valuable shot is going down less often. According to Statsheet.com, 3-point shooting at the Division I level is down from last season’s 15-year high of 35.2 percent to 33.4 percent, the lowest average since 1997, when it was 34.0.

Six of the seven area teams are shooting worse from behind the arc this season. And as Pitino predicted, national scoring has slumped accordingly, dropping from a median of 68.9 points last season to 68.5.

The deeper line had two primary objectives: First and most obviously, the extra foot was supposed to either punish or dissuade marginal shooters from taking a shot that was starting to become a routine part of every player’s arsenal. Second, and more subtly, the deeper line was supposed to spread defenses out a little more, providing better offensive spacing and more room to operate for both post players in the paint and players using pass or dribble penetration.

On the former count, there’s little question the deeper line seems to be working to some extent.

“If one of the primary intentions was to help separate good shooters from great ones, then I think maybe we’re seeing that,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “Across college basketball and our league, 3-point shooting is down a little. But you look at a guy like Kyle [McAlarney], and his numbers are up. Why? Maybe because a foot or two isn’t going to make a difference to a guy with his range and stroke.”

There is considerable evidence that the new line doesn’t really affect great shooters like McAlarney, an Irish senior who takes most of his 3s from NBA range. Among players with at least 30 attempts, McAlarney leads the Big East in 3-point field goal percentage (.481) after finishing second to Georgetown’s Jon Wallace last season (.441).

Other noted long-range marksmen, such as Temple’s Dionte Christmas and Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks, also have seen their proficiency from 3-point range increase in spite of the new arc.

For every McAlarney, however, there are at least two players formerly regarded as good shooters who have struggled at the new distance. Take Georgetown senior Jessie Sapp. A solid 3-point shooter last season (41.1 percent) with the line a foot closer and the deadly Wallace on his flank, Sapp is shooting just 34.5 percent from behind the arc this season.

“I don’t think it’s the new line,” said Sapp, who has made just seven of his past 31 attempts (22.6 percent) from behind the arc. “If you watch, my shots are either long or they go in and rim out. It’s not like I’m leaving them all short. … My mother called me the other day and told me that I’m releasing the ball too early. She and my brother were watching a tape of me from last year, and it was different. So I guess I’ve got to go back to my old form. What the big woman says, goes. … Once I get back to that old rhythm, I’ll be fine.”

Maybe not. Georgetown’s John Thompson III and a handful of his coaching compatriots believe the drop-off stems at least in part from muscle conditioning. In reality, one foot isn’t a big difference. But in practice, particularly for many kids who have spent their entire lives standing just behind the old arc, a foot might as well be a mile.

“If you look at old tapes from before they had a line, I think they shot from farther away than where the arc is now,” Thompson said. “But when we put that line down [in 1987], kids unfortunately began walking right to it. … Sure, it’s only one foot, but you’re also dealing with years of muscle memory in some cases.”

Evaluating whether the deeper line has opened up the middle requires more subjective analysis.

“I’ve definitely noticed the added space,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Most teams are still going to guard that line like crazy, so that pulls the whole perimeter defense out another step. To me, unclogging the floor a little is a major benefit.”

Perhaps the ultimate benefit of the new arc could be the return of basketball’s largely lost midrange game. In the past decade, guards who took few shots inside the arc and outside the paint became the norm.

The 18-foot jump shot was routinely labeled “the worst shot in basketball” by analysts and coaches alike. Midrange masters like Juan Dixon, who built a career at Maryland on the pull-up 14-footer, began disappearing. To some degree, basketball was becoming a game of layups, dunks and 3s.

Perhaps the new 3-point line, and potentially deeper incarnations, will welcome back these dynamic players.

“There’s usually a nice hole now between the 3-point arc and the paint,” said Georgetown freshman Jason Clark, a throwback, pull-up proponent. “People are going to fly at 3-point shooters and deny the post, but some of the best shots in the game are available in between.”