Early in this 2019-20 IU basketball season it appeared as though we might have moved on from the issue that has seemed to plague Archie Miller during his time in Bloomington.
Despite the fact that the three-point line was moved back about 17 inches, the Hoosiers were converting from long range at a meaningfully higher clip than Miller’s first two seasons at Indiana.
It appeared that IU had a better collective group of shooters this year, and it seemed like Indiana’s percentages had nowhere to go but up after two miserable seasons. Indiana fans could once and for all blame everything on Romeo Langford’s thumb and be done with this conversation.
Nine games into this season, IU was making 36 percent of its shots from behind the arc. That’s a top-100 figure across the college basketball landscape, and a glorious, delightful percentage if you are an Indiana fan that has suffered through the worst two seasons in the history of the program as it relates to making three-pointers.
It was reasonable to expect a modest retreat on those percentages as Indiana’s competition level continued to increase and the Hoosiers ventured away from home more often.
Since game nine, which was Indiana’s loss at Wisconsin, things have changed quite dramatically. Over its last eight games IU has made just 23 percent (32-of-139) from distance, and for the season the Hoosiers are down to just 29.7 percent. Yes, IU is on track to register its worst ever percentage from three-point range for the third straight season.
The 29.7 percent clip is No. 305 (out of 353) in the country, and that follows seasons where IU ranked No. 311 (31.2 percent) and No. 307 (32.2) in 2018-19 and 2017-18, respectively.
After a particularly depressing 2-of-18 performance from three-point range on Wednesday night at Rutgers, a frustrated Miller said “you’re going to have to find a way to stick a couple shots.”
The answer seems rather obvious, but we wondered what history might tell us about the likely direction of this season if Indiana continues to hoist bricks from long range at their current pace.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE THREE POINT LINE
The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a proposal over the summer to move back the men’s basketball three-point line in college basketball to the international basketball distance of 22 feet, 1 ¾ inches.
Since 2008, the three-point arc was located at 20 feet, 9 inches from the center of the basket. The original distance of 19 feet, 9 inches stood from the inception of the line in 1987 until the 2008 rule change.
Three-point shooting percentages took a slight hit in the 2008-09 season after the arc was moved back one foot, but the data suggests that long range shooting percentages were not meaningfully impacted by that move.
Thus far this season, the national division one percentages have dropped from 34.4 percent to 33.2 percent according to KenPom, although that service cautions that the percentage generally trends up during the season.
Indiana’s current year-over-year decline from 31.2 percent to 29.7 percent is similar to and slightly worse than the national trend.
INDIANA’S HISTORY BEHIND THE ARC
The IU basketball / three-point line partnership quite literally could not have gotten off to a better start, despite unambiguous opposition to the new rule by the leader of the Hoosier program at the time.
“I’m not sure there’s anybody that dislikes the 3-point shot more than I do,” former head coach Bob Knight once famously said.
But of course the first year that college basketball adopted the three-point shot was also a pretty special season for Knight’s Hoosiers.
With legendary IU guard Steve Alford attempting 202 of Indiana’s 256 shots from three-point range during the 1986-87 season, Knight in some respects rode the three-point line to his third national title.
Alford made 53 percent of his shots from behind the arc on the season, including a 7-of-10 performance in a 74-73 win over Syracuse in the national title game. As a team, IU shot a program best-ever 50.8 percent from three for the 1986-1987 campaign.
But while things worked out well for Knight and IU early on, ultimately his reservations about the three-point line seemed to play out as attempts went up and percentages went down — even on his own team.
In fact, you could argue that at least some part of the decline in winning that Knight saw during the latter part of his tenure in Bloomington can be laid at the feet of the three-point line.
Moreover, the Indiana coaches that have followed him have also in large part seen their fortunes rise and fall with their team’s ability, or inability to convert from distance.
Things turned ugly for Mike Davis when his teams could no longer convert from distance. The inconsistency of Tom Crean’s teams seems to correlate to his team’s three-point percentage.
And as for Miller? Well, obviously it has been a challenging first two and a half years with no relief from the three-point line in sight.
It is risky to draw definitive conclusions from this limited, IU-specific data, but it seems fairly clear that Indiana’s better teams have been, for the most part, its best three-point shooting teams since the line was adopted.
The last six NCAA national champions have shot 38.1 percent from three point-range, and the last two, Villanova and Virginia, shot 40.1 and 39.5 percent, good for No. 11 and No. 8 in the country, respectively.
Those are programs that seem like good models for Miller at Indiana, but thus far, his Hoosier teams have only shot 31.3 percent from three-point range through two and a half seasons.
RETHINK THE RECRUITING STRATEGY?
Indiana’s 256 three-point attempts in 1987 pale in comparison to the 639 a year the team as taken over the last two seasons. And the Hoosiers are taking nearly 400 more shots from long range despite shooting around 20 percentage points lower. That was just the sort of thing that Knight was worried about.
But of course with the NBA game evolving into a glorified three-point contest, none of this is going to change anytime soon.
When Crean recruited graduate transfer Nick Zeisloft to play for him prior to the 2014-15 season, few expected a meaningful impact. After all, Zeisloft, averaged just 6.9 points per game at Illinois State the previous season.
Zeisloft went on to make 128 three-pointers in two years for Crean, converting from distance at a 43.2 percent clip. He was an important part of IU’s 2016 outright Big Ten title team, and Indiana’s last NCAA Tournament appearance.
The La Grange, Ill. product in all honesty probably wasn’t athletic enough to be playing in the Big Ten, but as they say, the three-point line is the great equalizer in basketball. Few illustrated that better than Zeisloft.
Last season Indiana twice ran into a 6-foot-nothing buzz saw named Jordan Bohannon. The Iowa guard made 10-of-17 shots from three-point range against the Hoosiers and kept IU out of the NCAA Tournament by himself.
As a recruit Bohannon was barely a three-star, the No. 312 ranked player in the country.
With the success and impact of players like Zeisloft and Bohannon, just to name a couple, it seems reasonable to at least wonder whether Indiana has its recruiting strategy backwards.
Do you recruit natural shooters and immerse them in your system, or do you recruit guys whose natural gifts fit your system and hope they become better shooters?
We’ll leave you to ponder that one.
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