Final Four teams are way better at taking shots than they are at making them


The mystery of Duke 2010 — solved!

Last season I was struck by how some of the most incredible performances we saw from teams on offense were not necessarily all that incredible in terms of shooting. I realize this was a long time ago, but think back, for example, to the 82-50 win that Frank Kaminsky-era Wisconsin recorded at home against Iowa. That day the Badgers committed just one turnover and scored an absurd 1.52 points per possession while making 54 percent of their twos and 41 percent of their threes.

Obviously the shooting displayed by Bo Ryan’s guys against the Hawkeyes was excellent, but it’s at least possible for the very best offenses to achieve that roughly that same level of accuracy over an entire season. (Indeed that’s about how well Iowa State just shot in Big 12 play.) Conversely no offense in the history of the game has ever or will ever come anywhere close to scoring a point-and-a-half per trip for any appreciable multi-game length of time.

Mindful of this fact, I made a mental note to look into this whole matter of launching shots in mass quantities. (I vaguely remember thinking I’d use a picture of Phil Spector and tackle the subject under a “Wall of Shots” headline.) Then I got busy and did other things.

Finally a couple weeks ago I got around to musing on shot volume. Since I posted that piece I’ve benefited from some really interesting comments and questions, and I’ve even read a nimble and enlightening follow-up piece that looked at one team in particular through this same lens.

Two further points on shot volume:

It’s no silver bullet
Defense matters too. (Go figure.) This season Georgia Tech and NC State have launched plenty of shot attempts, and in ACC play those two went a combined 13-23. If winning basketball games were as easy as recording a lot of shots, it would be a much simpler sport — not to mention a far less entertaining one.

But within a population of good teams, it may turn out to be one of several handy screening devices
Once we’ve done away with the one-trick shot-volume ponies and we’re down to objectively good basketball teams, it may be the case that excellence in taking shots is just as important as accuracy in making them. In fact it may be even more important, as counterintuitive as that sounds.

In the last six Final Fours we’ve seen no fewer than nine teams that didn’t shoot as well as their league average during conference play. Two of those teams — Connecticut in 2011 and, you guessed it, UConn again in 2014 — even won it all. (The other seven were: Michigan State and West Virginia in 2010; VCU in 2011; Louisville in 2012; Syracuse and Wichita State in 2013; and Kentucky in 2014.) Judging from the recent past, below-average shooting need not pose an insurmountable barrier to reaching the Final Four or even to winning a national title. After all, fully 37 percent of Final Four participants over the last six years have been below-average in terms of shooting during conference play.

During that same time, however, we’ve seen just two Final Four teams — UConn in 2014, and Louisville in 2012 — that during conference play failed to equal their league average for shot volume. Throw a stick at the last six Final Fours and there’s a 92 percent chance you’ll hit a team whose performance in terms of shot volume was above-average that season. Nor does this picture change if we shift from pass-fail to letter grades. In fact the 24 teams that have reached a national semifinal since 2010 have been about as good (excellent) at attempting shots as they’ve been at defense (superb).

Which is not to say shot volume is as important as D, of course, merely that recent teams that have managed to go 4-0 in the brackets (or 5-0; I see you, VCU in 2011) have for whatever reason shown both traits in roughly equal measures.

Take Duke in 2010. That season the defining features of the Blue Devils were excellent defense, horrific two-point shooting, and the fact that none of their players were about to be taken in the first or even second round of the impending draft. Watching Mike Krzyzewski’s guys in real time I wondered how a team like this could win a national championship. Now I feel like I have a better grasp on the answer. For one thing it turns out the national semifinal between Duke and West Virginia that year was an all-time shot-volume showdown, one contested between two masters of the art: Coach K and Bob Huggins.

Now, about this little event coming up next week….
I’m still unclear on whether shot volume’s an actual benefit in the really small sample size called the NCAA tournament, or if this is simply a case where teams that record a lot of shots tend to do well across longer stretches of basketball and therefore earn exceptionally good seeds.

Fortunately the 2016 tournament is shaping up as an ingeniously designed experiment to test that very question. It’s possible that three of this year’s No. 1 seeds will go to teams that ranked at Nos. 49, 50 and 57 out of 75 major-conference teams in terms of shot volume. Talk about good timing. Perhaps there will be definitive answers in the offing.

Meantime here are your year-end results for shot volume in major-conference play, complete with pithy category titles at plus and minus one standard deviation. Feast your eyes.

Easy Shot Volume Solver (ESVS), 2016
Major-conference play only

Gluttonous             ESVS
1.  North Carolina     125.0
2.  Kentucky           122.3
3.  West Virginia      120.8
4.  Baylor             120.3
5.  Michigan State     119.4
6.  Pitt               119.1
7.  NC State           118.8
8.  Notre Dame         118.4
9.  Purdue             118.3
10. Georgia Tech       118.2
11. Iowa               117.6

Normal                 ESVS          
12. South Carolina     117.5
13. Oregon             117.3
14. Texas A&M          117.3
15. Ole Miss           116.9
16. Tennessee          116.7
17. Arizona            116.5
18. Louisville         116.3
19. Indiana            116.0
20. Colorado           115.6
21. Kansas State       115.3
22. Miami              115.2
23. Seton Hall         115.2
24. Florida            115.0
25. Butler             114.9
26. Xavier             114.7
27. Nebraska           114.4
28. UCLA               114.3
29. Kansas             114.2
30. Northwestern       114.1
31. Georgia            114.1
32. Duke               114.0
33. Florida State      113.9
34. Providence         113.6
35. Washington         113.5
36. Clemson            113.4
37. Arkansas           113.2
38. LSU                113.2
39. Syracuse           113.1
40. Wisconsin          113.0
41. Oregon State       113.0
42. USC                113.0
43. Texas Tech         112.7
44. Cal                112.5
45. Texas              112.4
46. Arizona State      112.1
47. Utah               112.0
48. Stanford           111.7
49. Virginia           111.2
50. Oklahoma           110.9
51. Iowa State         110.6
52. Maryland           110.6
53. Ohio State         110.5
54. Mississippi State  110.5
55. Wake Forest        110.0
56. Alabama            110.0
57. Villanova          109.4
58. Penn State         109.4
59. Vanderbilt         109.4
60. Minnesota          109.2
61. DePaul             109.1
62. Michigan           108.8
63. Georgetown         108.6
64. Oklahoma State     108.4
65. Missouri           108.4

Starving               ESVS
66. Creighton          108.0
67. Virginia Tech      107.0
68. Auburn             106.5
69. TCU                105.9
70. St. John's         105.1
71. Marquette          104.0
72. Rutgers            103.9
73. Illinois           103.5
74. Washington State   102.0
75. Boston College     100.0