25th Anniversary of the 3-Point Shot
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Twenty six years ago, getting ‘Pittsnogled!’ would have meant some sort of post-up move for a slam dunk instead of a big 3 late in the game from, of all players, a 7-foot center.
But of course a lot has changed since 1986, the last time college basketball has played without the 3-point line. Now we’ve got shooting centers like Kevin Pittsnogle showing off his tats and getting the fans all whooped up into a frenzy and schools like Butler, George Mason and VCU reaching the Final Four. College basketball has never been more interesting, more entertaining or more unpredictable and the reason is clear – the 3-point shot has helped make it that way.
“I think (the 3) is definitely a weapon, but there are also so many misconceptions about it,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “My guy at Cincinnati (Darnell Burton), who made the sixth-most 3s and had more 3s (306) than anybody has ever had at this school, got a lot of them because I had (Danny) Fortson, (Dontonio) Wingfield and (Erik) Martin and everybody had to guard them.”
Huggins is one of the coaches who was around 25 years ago when the NCAA made the bold move to adopt the 3-point shot a year after it also incorporated the shot clock, originally established at 45 seconds but later reduced to 35 seconds seven years later in 1993. When you talk to coaches from that era they typically refer to the 3-point shot and the shot clock in the same breath.
Those two changes altered the game in a way it probably hasn’t seen since the late 1930s when they quit jumping for balls after each made basket. The first year of the 3-ball in ’87 saw NCAA teams attempt 9.2 per game. Ten years later that number increased to 17.1 attempts, and today, the college game is seeing an average of 18.2 3s per game.
West Virginia, too, has experienced a similar increase, going from 5.6 3-point attempts in 1987 to 14 3-point tries in 1997 to an average of 18.5 3-point attempts per game last year under Huggins. Huggins, coaching at Akron when the new rule was adopted, said most of the coaches he knew in the late 80s weren’t too thrilled with the idea of adding the 3-point shot to the game.
“I remember Coach (Bob) Knight wasn’t for it,” Huggins said. “He said he wasn’t for it and he had the best 3-point shooter in the country (Steve Alford).”
Gale Catlett, who coached 30 years at Cincinnati and West Virginia, said he was in favor of the 3 as long as the shot clock came with it.
“I liked the idea based on what the distance was and based on the shot clock,” said Catlett from his winter home in Hawaii. “I voted for it because I thought it would be like the home run in baseball. It would be something exciting for the fans to see.”
Actually, Catlett’s West Virginia teams played in a conference (Atlantic 10) that used the 3-point shot on an experimental basis during the 1982-83 and 1984-85 seasons. At the time, the A-10 was playing in the shadows of the Big East Conference and the league was looking for ways to generate some additional excitement and enthusiasm. And adding a 3-point shot was much easier to do than getting bigs like Patrick Ewing, Walter Berry and Derrick Coleman to come into the league.
“I don’t remember the exact vote, but it barely passed in the coaches’ meeting before it went to the ADs and the presidents to even take a look at it,” Catlett recalled. “If 10 coaches were there, it passed like six- to-four to try it on an experimental basis.”
For non-league games, Atlantic 10 coaches would call their opposing counterparts to see if they wanted to use it. Surprisingly, many of them did.
“Ironically, I think everybody we called wanted to use it, or at least most of them were very favorable, for sure,” said Catlett.
One of the schools agreeing to use it was St. Leo - West Virginia’s first opponent for the 1982-83 season. There were 12 3s taken by both teams in that game with the Mountaineers making all three, one each by Greg Jones, Quentin Freeman and Vernon Odom. Jones was the first player in school history to hit a 3-point shot and it came with just 2:36 left in the first half – pretty good evidence that Catlett really wasn’t sure how to use it.
“I started coaching in the fall of ’63,” Catlett said. “I coached at Richmond and then I went with Lefty (Driesell) to Davidson, then with Ted Owens at Kansas and then with Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. I didn’t see anything about 3-point shooting until I had become a head coach for almost 10 years. My training for nine years was out the window.”
What Catlett had learned coming up through the coaching ranks was that the most successful teams got the best shots possible, which usually meant getting them as close to the basket as you could if you had good big people. If you didn’t, then you ran the hell out of the other team on the fast break.
“The first thing I was taught in college from Fred Schaus was get the ball off the backboard and get down on the fast break and get the numbers,” Catlett said. “You get the easiest shots you can ever get if you get the numbers on the break.
“All of the good coaches I was around ran the fast break,” Catlett added. “Later when the 3-point shot came, if one of my players would have come down three on two and pitched it out for a 3, I would have taken him out of the game. We were going to try and shoot a layup on you.”
A game changer
The guy who started to change everyone’s thinking about the 3 was Rick Pitino, who took an undersized and undermanned Providence team to the Final Four in 1987 by hoisting up more 3s than anyone else, the Friars leading the country that year by averaging more than eight 3-pointers per game.
“Pitino started that at Providence because he didn’t have the players that Georgetown, St. John’s, Syracuse or Villanova had at that particular time,” said Catlett. “So his only chance was to shoot the 3 and he went to the Final Four shooting 3s.”
Pitino’s unorthodox strategy was validated two nights later in the NCAA finals when Knight’s Indiana team made 7 of 11 from behind the arc (all seven coming from Steve Alford) to defeat Syracuse, 74-73. Remember, Knight was the guy who didn’t like the 3 in the first place. Shortly afterward, other coaches around the country began trying to wrap their arms around the game’s newest weapon.
“During our preseason coaches’ meetings, when the 3-point shot came out the first year, we spent maybe an hour discussing it,” Catlett recalled. “After the first couple of years, we would spend at least one day, within reason, talking about versions of the 3-point shot: How were we going to use it? Are we going to use it in transition? How are we going to use it against the zone? Are we going to use it against certain triple screens in man? Each year as a coach I thought I became better at it, but at the same time, I was never a committed guy that people said ‘well, Catlett looked for the 3 first and then got it inside later.’ I never did that.”
But John Beilein was one of those guys who did. When Beilein was at LeMoyne in the late 80s and was on the short end of the stick he saw right away how the 3 could even things out.
“It was too good to be true,” Beilein once said of the 3. “People didn’t know how to defend it.”
“I think with my dad’s offense, he’s got a bunch of shooters and then he puts a couple of athletes around them who can get to the rim,” said Patrick Beilein, who played for his father at West Virginia and is now director of basketball operations at Bradley. “By having a lot of 3-point options, I’m sure he said, ‘OK, I’m going to do something different and find ways to score out of this two-guard set.’ It’s worked so far for him. He’s been pretty successful everywhere he’s been.”
Catlett adapted, too. In 1988, he found guard Chris Leonard out in the woods of Loudon County, Va., and gave him a scholarship mainly because he could shoot the 3.
“The 3-point shot really brought a lot of other players into the mix in regards to recruiting strategies for colleges,” said Leonard, today working in Fairfax, Va., as the director of department of neighborhood and community services for Fairfax County. “They were still trying to figure out how to utilize it, but it was this weapon now that you got the extra point if you shot it from behind that line and colleges were trying to scramble to get as many kids as they could who could do that.”
Leonard is certain his ticket to the high-majors was punched because of his ability to stroke it from behind the 3-point arc. Otherwise, he would have likely ended up at one of the smaller Virginia schools or at one of the service academies.
“I was clearly not going to be a lock-down defender or a ball handler - my role was to shoot behind that 3-point line,” Leonard said.
Except for Pittsnogle or possibly Mike Gansey, nobody in school history can match Leonard’s 3-point shooting accuracy. Because of pure volume, Beilein’s players have broken all of Leonard’s 3-point records with the exception of one, career 3-point field percentage. Leonard was a career 42-percent shooter from behind the arc, including converting a phenomenal 46 percent of his 3s as a senior in 1992.
In fact, Catlett valued Leonard’s outside shooting so much that he gave him the green light to shoot 3s in transition (something he would have never considered doing a few years prior to that) and also devised unique ways to get his slow-footed shooter open for 3s in half court sets. One set even included running Leonard through three different individual screeners, a play Catlett got from Knight when he sprung Alford free for all those 3s against Syracuse in the ’87 title game.
The play started with Leonard on one side of the floor with the ball in his hands. Then after passing it back to the point guard, he took off to the other side of the floor, rubbing off of three different screeners until he reached the opposite wing. The last screener was a big guy, who gave Leonard enough space to get off a 3 once the ball was reversed. If the opposing big switched and came out on the shooter, then Leonard simply dumped the ball down into the post for a dunk against the smaller player who was forced to switch on the big man doing the screening.
“You can get through the first screen, and maybe the second, but trying to get through the third - or getting switches - was much tougher,” Catlett explained. “We always tried to end with him coming off a bigger guy for the shot because the big guys are less apt to switch out, and it gave us a mismatch. If they did switch then we dumped the ball inside.”
“I watch a lot of basketball and I consider Coach Catlett one of the greatest X and O coaches of all time,” said Leonard. “We ran the UCLA high post offense and you could see how he put in some different plays and different offenses that were designed for 3-point jump shots. That was the evolution he made because at that point in his career he had seen a lot. For him to evolve like that says a lot, and that’s kind of how the game evolved, too.”
Huggins, too, has kept up with the times. Alex Ruoff, the school’s all-time leader in career 3s made with 261, said the motion offense Huggins runs is adaptable to any style of player.
“With the motion offense, you really need a good screener,” he said. “That’s how you get open shots in that offense. When you set a good screen and your man has to help, that’s when you get your 3s.”
Ruoff saw right away the value of the 3-ball while playing for Beilein as a freshman. Before that, he didn’t really develop his 3-point game in high school.
“I was literally looking at Beilein and Gansey on the court while I was sitting on the bench and realizing that in order to get on the floor I had to make shots, mainly 3s,” Ruoff recalled.
Sometimes, though, Ruoff thought having too many good shooters on the floor at the same time caused some imbalances in the offense.
“I remember we had issues sometimes when we had all five shooters on the court of ‘let’s not fall in love with the 3,’” he said. “Let’s not get 35-40 attempts and just pray that they go in and we win.”
The great equalizer
Aspiring young coach Patrick Beilein is convinced the 3-point shot has become the game’s great equalizer. The same schools still get the best players. That hasn’t changed and likely never will, but today the less talented teams can stay in games against the more athletic teams with good 3-point shooting. All you have to do is check out the ESPN scroll on any night for proof of that.
“(The 3) has kept a lot of teams, especially at the mid-major level, able to compete with the BCS-type of schools,” said Beilein. “The mid-majors might not have as much talent, athletically, but can utilize guys who can really stroke the 3-ball, so it kind of evens out.”
Huggins, who has seen more than his share of great shooters through the years, said shooting is shooting, no matter if it’s behind the 3-point arc or in front of it.
“How many guys do you know who can make a 3 that’s not a step-in 3?” he asked rhetorically. “How many guys can curl into a 3? How many guys who you run anything for on the perimeter that it doesn’t result in their shoulders square and being able to step into it? It’s all the same.
“People do it different ways,” he continued. “Some people do it by throwing close and skipping it out. Most people do it by penetrate and pitch. They run whatever they run, they move guys, they drive to the middle, or they drive it to the elbow and they kick it. That’s because you’ve got step-in shots.”
Today, Huggins said everybody has players who can shoot the 3 – and everybody also has good plans to stop it.
“I think it’s nice to have guys who can make 3s, but when everybody has them I don’t know if it’s an advantage,” he explained. “The fallacy is you bring in a bunch of shooters and they can stand there and shoot 3s. Well, hell, nobody let’s you just stand there and shoot them.”
The biggest difference in the game today is that anyone on the floor is capable of shooting the 3 – even a five-man (if you can call them that now) like Kevin Pittsnogle has the green light to shoot it – something Catlett would never have considered doing during his 30-year coaching career that ended in 2002.
“We did not have a play for a five-man to go outside and shoot the 3-point shot,” said Catlett. “He could shoot it outside in transition, but most of the time I wanted the elbow shot if we had four on three.”
And if one of his bigs did take an ill-advised shot, Catlett was known to have a pretty quick hook.
“If you took some shots and didn’t make any I was very quick to say ‘we’ve got to make a little adjustment here. If you can make some shots you can shoot more. If you miss some shots then you’re going to have to either go inside or come over and help me coach the team.’”
Catlett chuckles when recalling one of the few exceptions. It happened at Duquesne during Chris Brooks’ junior year in 1990. Although listed as a forward, Brooks was essentially a 6-foot-6 center who struggled to make half of his free throws and was most effective around the rim.
“I remember when Chris Brooks played and he always wanted to shoot some 3s,” Catlett said. “Well, the first time he took a 3 he beat Duquesne. He knocked the damned thing in and he looked right at me. He didn’t have guts enough to shake his fist or point, but he gave me a big smile. He had a look on his face like ‘see, just let me shoot some of those, big boy!’
“I just turned my head so he couldn’t see me,” the coach laughed.
Catlett didn’t know it at the time, but he had just been ‘Brooks’d!’
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