Let’s never speak of shooting backgrounds again

Brady Manek is averaging four made threes per tournament game on 47 percent shooting. He is the exception to the rule in 2022. (Maggie Hobson, goheels.com)

The Superdome is about to welcome the Final Four for a sixth time, which means the site is moving up the all-time rankings for most national title games hosted. Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City is still the leader with nine, and at the final horn on Monday night the Superdome will officially be tied with Louisville’s Freedom Hall for second place among structures that still exist. (“Old” Madison Square Garden hosted seven NCAA title games, though these weren’t what we would today call “true” Final Fours. Read more!)

Should one or more of the upcoming three games feature ugly three-point shooting, there’s a fair chance the shooting background in the notoriously cavernous New Orleans edifice will be cited as a factor. Then again we’ve already seen 64 tournament games played, and none of them took place in a venue that can host an NFL game. Last weekend’s regionals, for example, occurred in NBA arenas occupied by the Warriors, Bulls, Spurs, and Sixers. To this point, the 2022 tournament has played out exclusively in basketball venues.

Which is interesting, because the three-point shooting in the tournament this year has been historically awful.

(Data from the indispensable sports-reference.com. Pay no mind to that automatically generated 2020 label.)

No, don’t blame that new ball that was rolled out for this year’s men’s and women’s tournaments. Shooting on free throws has held up just fine on the men’s side (73.0 percent) compared to last year’s tournament (72.3). It would be an odd ball indeed that poses no problem on free throws but becomes belligerent on threes.

If it’s not the ball, perhaps the issue here arises from either the shooters or the shot itself. The three-point line was moved back, of course, in between the 2019 and 2021 tournaments. Three-point accuracy did indeed dip to 33.7 percent in the 2021 bracket. But this year, with the same line that was in place 12 months ago, the success rate has plunged all the way down to 31.5 percent.

When the field as a whole is just 843-of-2674 from beyond the arc, you’ll see some teams benefiting from exceptionally poor three-point shooting by their opponents.

The NCAA tournament can be a three-point defense lottery
Lowest opponent 3-point percentages, 2022 tournament (minimum two games)

                     Opp. 3FG%
1.  Providence          16.9
2.  Villanova           21.3
3.  Iowa State          22.4
4.  TCU                 22.9
5.  Murray State        25.0
6.  Kansas              25.6
7.  Houston             26.4
8.  North Carolina      26.5

Conversely, the fact that the field is collectively missing threes doesn’t mean your opponent will.

Lotteries have both winners and losers…mostly losers
Highest opponent 3-point percentages, 2022 tournament (minimum two games)

                     Opp. 3FG%
1.  Indiana             40.0
2.  Michigan State      39.5
3.  Duke                35.9
4.  Notre Dame          34.8
5.  Texas               34.5
6.  Tennessee           34.2
7.  Baylor              34.0
8.  Texas Tech          33.8

While we’re on the topic of winners and losers, teams that have advanced in the 2022 tournament have hit 35.5 percent of their threes in their victories. Losing teams have converted just 28.0 percent of their tries.

This split between winners and losers underscores just how bad the shooting has truly been this year. As recently as 2015, the overall tournament success rate on threes was identical to what we’re seeing this year from winning teams: 35.5 percent. Again, there was a different line in effect seven years ago. Nevertheless, coming in under 32 percent with the current arc constitutes a surprisingly inept performance.

One possible explanation for historically bad three-point shooting over the course of 64 games is that there is no explanation. The players aren’t worse at making threes than they were a year ago. Division I connected on 33.8 percent of its tries from beyond the arc last season, and in 2021-22 that number dropped very slightly to 33.6 percent. That’s the smallest year-to-year change we’ve seen in four seasons.

Though it seems like a lot of basketball when you’re watching it all unfold, 60-some games in fact constitutes a pretty small sample size. Wacky things can occur within such tight confines, and this tournament’s perimeter shooting certainly qualifies as one of those things.

When a significant change occurs, we’re hard-wired to want answers that will explain why this is happening. We should consider making room for randomness as one possible answer alongside shooting backgrounds.