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Twenty Years Later, Debate Over 3-Point Shot Lively

Mark Emmons
(MCT)

   The arc has been on the floor now for so long that it's getting difficult to remember a time when it wasn't there. Nineteen feet, 9 inches from the basket, it has become the line that forever changed and revolutionized the game.

   Yet two decades ago, there was a raging debate about whether this gimmicky three-point shot would ruin college basketball.

   Let's answer that question.

   Uh, no.

   The three-point shot, celebrating its 20th anniversary, has become the game's "wow" factor. It's the play that brings a crowd to its feet and sends a jolt of electricity through an arena. It's a quick-strike weapon that changes momentum, leads and sometimes losses into victories. And vice versa.

   It also has had the unintended effect of making the NCAA tournament an even wilder, upset-laden event.

   While the three-point shot was designed to open up the floor, it has also given the underdog a shot, so to speak. Much of the tournament's charm is derived from the gutty little teams that each year rise up to knock off college basketball's royalty (even if they have been rare this March).

   This is at least partly because the three-point shot leveled the playing court. It gives undermanned teams a puncher's chance of taking down superior teams.

   It also speaks to how talking heads are always rambling on about the importance of good guard play in the tournament. The three-point shot has played a key role in raising the profile of guards who can shoot from the perimeter.

   "It's definitely changed the game completely," said Steve Alford, one of the first three-point sharpshooters.

   But that doesn't mean everyone's happy.

   "I still hate it," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim recently told the New York Times. "...I never liked it, but it's here to stay, so there's no use in talking about it."

   There's a growing belief that the three-point line needs to be pushed back to make it a greater challenge. The NCAA recently sent out questionnaires to gauge schools' opinions about moving the line, perhaps to the international distance of 20 feet, 6 inches.

   That echoes what the traditionalists long have been saying.

   "I wish there was more balance in the game," said coaching legend Pete Newell. "Teams will come down the court never intending to do anything but shoot a three-pointer. You don't see centers in our game anymore. You'll see a guy hit 6 of 7 three-pointers now, but that was never the intention."

   The three-point shot was hardly a novel idea when it arrived in 1986. The NBA had been using it since 1979. College conferences had experimented with it, off and on, for years. (The first time it was tried was a 1945 game between Columbia and Fordham.)

   But in the early-to-mid-1980s, the college basketball universe still mostly revolved around the big man, thanks to players such as Joe Barry Carroll, Ralph Sampson, Akeem Olajuwon (before he asked to be known as Hakeem) and Patrick Ewing.

   The head of the NCAA's rules committee, Edward Steitz, had also been responsible for the 45-second shot clock and the reinstatement of the dunk. He thought the game had become too skewed toward the giants and believed the three-point shot would unclog the lane and give smaller players a bigger role.

   And the shot did add a new dimension to a game that Steitz, and others, felt was getting a little stale.

   That first season, it was used sparingly. Division I teams averaged 3.5 three-point baskets on 9.2 attempts a game. (That 38.4 percentage happens to remain the highest ever.)

   Some coaches, however, instantly recognized the shot's potential, especially for teams that lacked the size and overall talent of their opponents.

   Providence's Rick Pitino was among them. His team rode the three-pointer all the way to the Final Four that season. (Billy Donovan, now the coach at Florida, did much of the shooting.) Pitino had done the math and realized that making 33 percent of your shots from beyond the arc was roughly equivalent to converting 50 percent of your two-point shots.

   Still, most coaches were reluctant to embrace it. A poll by the National Association of Basketball Coaches found that 65 percent of them didn't want it. Indiana's Bobby Knight complained bitterly about the shot almost from the moment it was enacted. (He still doesn't like it.)

   But Knight preached a different tune to his players because he had one of the best shooters in the country, Alford.

   "I remember one day in practice, Coach stopped everything when Alford drove to the basket," said Keith Smart, a Warriors assistant coach who played on that Indiana team. "He told Steve, `I don't even want you inside that three-point line.'"

   Alford would go on to bury 7 of 10 shots from beyond the arc in the title-game victory over Syracuse that season.

   And the tide had turned. After the season, 80 percent of coaches who responded to an NCAA survey were in favor of the shot. The women's game added the three-pointer a year later.

   Midway through this season, Division I teams were taking more than 19 attempts a game and making 6.7 of them, an average of 35 percent. Yet many coaches still have mixed feelings, including the coach at Iowa, a guy named Alford.

   "You can control the game for maybe 35 minutes, and then the other team hits some threes and everything changes," Alford said. "That's never an easy thing for a coach to take. But it's also made the game more exciting. Overall, I think the three-point line has been very good to our game."

   Good is something few dispute. But, is it too easy?

   "When teams take 41 threes in a game, what does that tell you?" asked Digger Phelps, the former Notre Dame coach and current ESPN analyst.

   Phelps was a member of the NCAA rules committee in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "I wanted to move it back to the international line. The shot never bothered me. It was just too close. It took away the balance of the game. When teams make threes, they win. When teams miss threes, they lose. That's not what the game is. You might as well play H-O-R-S-E."

   Doug Gottlieb, another ESPN analyst who played at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State, agreed that the line needs to be moved back. If it were, he believes the mid-range jumper, the 15- to 18-footer, which is something of a lost art, would come back in vogue.

   But like others, he doesn't advocate messing with it too much.

   "It really does make this tournament special because it makes everybody fallible. Anyone is just one hot-shooting night away from falling. It makes college basketball more watchable."

   Have a comment? Please e-mail us.


ŠThe Voice 2007
Revised
01/13/2008 03:16:41 PM — http://www.uamont.edu/Organizations/TheVoice/4_20/comm2.htm