5 March Madness Games That Could Be Decided By Three-Point Shooting, Presented By The Belko Experiment
At all levels of basketball, players are chucking up more threes than ever before. Blame it on the lack of physicality, newfound emphasis on efficiency, or just the shear influence of a guy like Stephen Curry.
No matter the reason, it's happening.
As much as just about anything, the three-point shot has become a valuable advantage for NCAA squads. Sometimes, teams are so evenly matched that it is the deciding factor in a game.
With the amount of parity in college basketball, not to mention the level of competition in this year's NCAA Tournament, we're sure to have a number of games come down to the wire and be decided just like that. Others won't be. Overly matched mid-majors will use the three-point shot as their equalizer -- to level the playing field, if you will.
Which first-round games could be dictated or decided by this valuable weapon, and how?
Northwestern (8) vs. Vanderbilt (9)
Northwestern is everyone's feel-good story. They're dancing for the very first time in program history, becoming the 318th team (of 351) to accomplish the feat. Opposing the Wildcats are the Vanderbilt Commodores, who are underrated for a team of their seed historically. It may go against popular sentiment but, according to our algorithms, it's Chris Collins and his team that are the underdogs.
Three-point shooting could very well be the reason the Commodores are favored, despite the lower seeding. After all, via Sports Reference, they're sixth in college basketball in three-point attempt rate (3PAr) -- the percentage of field goal attempts taken from three -- with a mark of 48.6%. On 37.7% shooting, that type of volume has Vandy ranked seventh in the nation in total threes.
Unlike many teams the Commodores have faced this season, though, the Wildcats defense will be a tall task to overcome, as they allow opponents a true shooting percentage of just 49.5%, which places 20th in the nation. Within their own offense, Northwestern is in the middle of the pack in three-point rate (35.9%) and is 221st in three-point shooting percentage (34.1%).
To make matters worse, Vanderbilt allows just 33.6% shooting and 6.5 makes per game from beyond the arc. This combination of effective three-point offense and defense could help the Commodores maintain the advantage and advance to the Round of 32.
Creighton (6) vs. Rhode Island (11)
According to ESPN's Who Picked Whom, 39% of bracket participants are picking the Rhode Island Rams to win in the Round of 64. It's probably due to Creighton's injury problems, but our numbers go a step further to tell us that the Rams have the better probability to take the game and pull the minor upset. If coach Dan Hurley's team proves our numbers right, expect it to come with a win in the three-point shooting battle.
Rhode Island isn't a team full of sharpshooters. They're 233rd in three-point percentage and take just 32.1% of their field goal attempts from outside the arc. In fact, only two players average at least one three per contest. Meanwhile, Creighton shoots 40% from three and takes 35.9% of their shots from deep. They're 35th in total makes, and they boast four players averaging over a triple per game.
The issue isn't that the Bluejays have allowed 36.8% of their opponents' shots to come in the form of the three, nor is it that they hold teams to 33.3% from range. Rather, it's that Rhode Island's three-point defense is elite. Their three-point attempt rate against (29.8%) is 16th in the nation and they have held opponents to 29% shooting.
Clearly, this appears to be a recipe for disaster for coach Greg McDermott's undermanned Bluejays.
Iowa State (5) vs. Nevada (12)
It's possible that the Midwest gets all kinds of shaken up early. In addition to a competitive 6-11 game, look for an intriguing 5-12 matchup, where the Iowa State Cyclones meet the Nevada Wolf Pack, winners of the Mountain West Conference. Though our numbers like Iowa State to hold on -- albeit, by a slim margin -- they could be susceptible to the upset against a team of a very similar build to their own.
In terms of three-point percentage, the Cyclones and Wolf Pack rank 13th and 40th in the nation, respectively. Both teams also take at least 39.5% of their field goal attempts from long range. Nevada holds the slight advantage there by taking 40.2% of their shots from three.
Defensively, the two teams are still eerily similar. While Iowa State allows 35.6% of their opponents' attempts to originate from beyond the arc, Nevada allows a three-point attempt rate of 35.5%. But despite the fact that three-point percentage isn't the most accurate indication of effective three-point defense, Nevada's three-point percentage against (30.7%) is 13th in all of the land, compared to Iowa State's mark of 34.8%.
Due to the Cyclones' experience, only 22.1% of people are advancing the Wolf Pack past the first round. Little do they know, the 12 seed is a mirror image of their 5-seeded foes.
Butler (4) vs. Winthrop (13)
By both Vegas' and our very own expectations, the Butler Bulldogs are decent favorites to move forward to the second round. It would be a very unlikely upset if the Winthrop Eagles were able to knock off the Bulldogs Thursday afternoon. Nonetheless, the power of the three-point shot opens up a small window of opportunity.
Butler's a solid team, but they are kind of average in the long range game. In averaging 37.5% of their total shots from deep and shooting 36.3% at range, they are a middle-of-the-road three-point offense. The same goes for defense, where they allow a three-point attempt rate of 37.6% along with 33.4% shooting.
In that lies Winthrop's opening. The Eagles, winners of the Big South, base their offense off of the three. Their three-point attempt rate of 43% is 37th in the nation, and they knock down 37.3% of their 25.4 attempts a game.
If the Bulldogs want to avoid an improbable early exit, they'll have to be even better than they've been at closing out on three-point shooters. If they don't, the Eagles' offense will be ready to take advantage and cause some noise down south.
Villanova (1) vs. Mount St. Mary's (16)
A 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed. And, according to our figures, Villanova is a near certainty to survive what would be an absolute first-round shocker. So you might think it's crazy when I say Mount St. Mary's has the slimmest of chances to make history tomorrow evening. Just hear me out.
The Villanova Wildcats are as dependent on the three-ball as all but 24 teams in the country. Their three-point attempt rate of 44.1% ranks 25th and tells us that they average almost as many three-point shots as they do two-point shots. Josh Hart and company make 8.8 threes per game on 37% shooting for coach Jay Wright. On the other end of the court, they consistently play with fire by allowing opponents to take 40.2% of their shots from three.
They're fortunate, then, that the Mount isn't exactly what you would call a three-point shooting team. They take just 36.9% of their shots from three and converted on a mere 36.1% of them. What they should be a little uneasy about is the Mountaineers' ability to defend the three-point line. Mount St. Mary's is third in the nation in three-point attempt rate against (27.3%) and, in doing so, have limited teams to 34% shooting.
The underdogs aren't likely to take advantage of Villanova's vulnerable three-point defense, but if they can slow down the Wildcats from beyond the arc, it could make for an interesting opening round contest. After all, just about anything can happen in March.