The NCAA tournament can be a three-point defense lottery

When Syracuse reached the 2013 Final Four, its four tournament opponents to that point had shot 15 percent on their threes. (Stephen D. Cannerelli)

As strange as it may seem, the 2021 NCAA tournament will mark the first time the championship’s been determined using the current three-point line. The line has of course been in place now for two full seasons and is thus a fixture of our hoops landscape. We forgot about it and moved on to other things early last season.

Then March 2020 happened. Since we all had to content ourselves with a three-weeks-long Joe Lunardi tweet storm instead of an actual tournament, the 2021 bracket is indeed about to present us with a new world order beyond the arc. The line at its current distance will be a newly configured feature on all those March Madness court designs that, perhaps inexplicably, people love to critique.

I for one will be watching closely to see if three-point accuracy across the breadth of the bracket lands someplace other than 33.9 percent. That figure was the success rate we saw over the course of 600 or so tournament games starting with the 2011 First Four and running through Virginia cutting down the nets in 2019.

Over that same stretch, however, the pre-Final-Four opponents of the 36 eventual national semifinalists were far less accurate from the perimeter. Those opponents shot 29.7 percent from beyond the arc over the course of 145 tournament games (non-divisible-by-four number of games brought to you by Shaka Smart, salute).

A difference of four percentage points is significant in this particular category, 29.7 percent shooting is pretty bad, and one could well infer that reaching the Final Four can therefore be something of a three-point defense lottery. Emphasis on can.

No one has to tell Virginia fans, for one, that there are exceptions to this tendency. Big, glaring, incredible exceptions. In 2019, the Cavaliers’ four opponents prior to the Final Four went nuts from beyond the arc, draining 39 percent of their tries from out there. (If you want to see a Virginia fan collapse instantly into a defensive fetal curl, sneak up behind them and shout: “Carsen Edwards!”) Give the reigning national champions credit, they fought through all the makes and won a title.

Even the shooting displayed by the Hoos’ tournament opponents in 2019 pales in comparison to what Wisconsin had to navigate, albeit at low volume, on its way to the national semifinals in 2015.

Making your fans suffer on [Jim Nantz voice] the Road to the Final Four
Best pre-Final Four tournament opponent 3FG%s for national semifinalists, 2011-19

                            Opp. 3FGM    Opp. 3FGA      %  
Wisconsin         2015          25           50       50.0
Oregon            2017          42          104       40.4
Virginia          2019          40          102       39.2
UConn             2014          35           97       36.1         
North Carolina    2016          30           83       36.1

Nevertheless, the Badgers, Ducks, Hoos, and their ilk were outliers, and the gravitational pull in the opposite direction has in fact been robust. Not once in that nine-tournament span did a given year’s Final Four teams collectively show a figure for three-point tournament defense higher than 33.2 percent.

What we tend to see instead is horrific perimeter shooting from the tournament opponents of teams that reach April.

And, lo, your coach shall be hailed as a wizard that week
Worst pre-Final Four tournament opponent 3FG%s for national semifinalists, 2011-19

                            Opp. 3FGM    Opp. 3FGA      %  
Syracuse          2013          14           92       15.2
Kentucky          2015          12           59       20.3
VCU               2011          23          100       23.0
Texas Tech        2019          22           94       23.4            
Michigan State    2015          14           59       23.7        

Look at that plucky UK team from 2015, a bunch of scrappy overachievers who needed every break they could get to eke out a miracle Final Four run. The Wildcats are out of the Southeastern conference, and head coach John Calipari is now in his 12th season at the helm. Give @KentuckyMBB a follow, folks.

No, actually, one occasionally overlooked aspect of the eye-catching lottery metaphor when applied to basketball is that sometimes real lotteries are won by those who are already quite wealthy. Randomness, go figure.

When a given rotation isn’t in the discussion for being the greatest team ever, on the other hand, insane three-point defense in the tournament tends to inspire adulation for the coach in particular. Surely, he has figured something out. Recall the brief mania for zone defense inspired in 2013 by Syracuse, when the Orange faced an Indiana program freed at last from a long and painful rebuild. IU now possessed a fully armed and operational No. 1 seed, one that had been painstakingly assembled and developed for years. The Hoosiers went 3-of-15 from outside in the Sweet 16, and Syracuse won by 11.

Think back to how then-Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich got to be a Beatle for a week in 2018, when the Wolverines held four tournament opponents to 26 percent shooting on threes. Chris Beard was next in line in that space in 2019. When our eyes behold an absolute blizzard of three-point misses by opponents, the explanation just has to be a Rick-Majerus-in-1998-level Gandalf figure.

And, of course, all those guys truly are great defensive coaches. They’ve proved as much, just as Nate Oats has done this season. Alabama’s opponents shot 25.9 percent from beyond the arc in SEC play. Yet even when those shots from opponents do fall, the Crimson Tide really are outstanding on that side of the ball thanks to excellent two-point defense. Not a contradiction, lotteries, wealthy, sometimes won by, etc.

Crowning the champion in a single-elimination tournament is done for our benefit. It’s magical spectator sport. But our wishes as aficionados can occasionally be in tension with our obligations as trustworthy narrators. Just remember a suggestion offered long ago by the legacy-creating Big Ten Wonk. Regress your view of your coach, for good or ill, toward the mean.