By Matt Norlander
It's time to move back the three-point line in college basketball. Again.
Already? Yes, already.
For the past six seasons the men's game has been played with a 20-foot-9-inch line, exactly a one-foot increase from the arc it had the two decades prior. Back in the spring of 2007, when this legislation passed, most college basketball coaches accepted the alteration, though expectedly there were a few detractors.
Still, the general acceptance from a bunch of older men to a significant restyling of the playing surface probably should have been warning that the change at hand wasn't drastic enough.
I'm not even advocating pushing the line back explicitly for the sake of making it tougher to hit a three, though I think that would be a nice wrinkle to bring back to college basketball. While lowered three-point takes and makes would inherently be part of it, I think plenty of players would catch up and keep pace similar to how they have over the course of nearly the past three decades.
I think the line needs another tug away from the tin because basketball is at its best when angles are in play, when space allows for motion and players create this sort of visual music that makes for some of the most beautiful fluctuation sports can produce. Cloggy basketball barely qualifies as the sport itself. In recent years college hoops took on an identity crisis by way of physical play that led to stodgy schemes and the lowest-scoring collective season since black-and-white television was commonplace.
The game has evolved, and with that evolution has come the penchant for shooting from behind the magical line that splits a shot between two- and three-points. Now, nearly everyone on scholarship wants to prove they can heave it from just about anywhere. Ask any coach and he'll be able to name you two or three players on his team who think they should be moonlighting as three-point shooters but in reality have no business taking the shot. They often do anyway. The three remains the game's most exciting element outside of the dunk, but a lot of its value has been blunted due to the volume in which the shot is used and the personnel who continually chucks up deep balls.
Let's look at the progression of three-point shooting in D-I men's hoops since the 19-9 line was permanently adopted across D-I in 1986, and then how the trend was affected starting in 2007-08, year-by-year:
How the trend looks in graph form with every year accounted for, graph via KPI Sports:
You might've thought a harsh uptick in national three-point percentage in the years leading up to the rule change was what catalyzed the reform, but that wasn't really the case. Yes, three-point percentage did rise, but in the mid-00s three-point shooting wasn't noticeably as effective across the board as it was in the mid-1980s or early '90s. Why is that? In part, defenses needed time to adjust to the teams/players who were ready and able to pull the trigger from beyond 20 feet.
There also used to be a higher premium on a run-and-gun style, which led to a different kind of attack in using the three than what we see with most programs today. Whereas the deep shot was once thought of as a knife jab amid fast-action battle, now the three is much more methodic; it's instead used like a scalpel.
Over the past couple of months I spoke with about two dozen coaches specifically about the three-point line and its distance in the current game. Only one was a strong advocate of pushing it back further. No surprise there, given they are coaches and would like their teams to make more shots than miss them.
"Maybe it's because scoring's up this year," Duquesne coach Jim Ferry said, when asked why more coaches aren't lobbying for this. "I'd love to see what Rick Pitino would do with it. Because he was the first one that attacked the three-point shot when it came out, when he was at Providence."
Ferry was the only coach I spoke with who was a strong backer, who believes the NCAA should discuss dragging the distance for a three ASAP. To him, the shot is no longer something of a specialty, and that's why he hates what it's become. Ferry runs one of the fastest systems in the game. In three of the past four seasons his teams at LIU Brooklyn, and now at Duquesne, have been in the top 16 in terms of shortest average time of possession. His LIU teams, which made back-to-back NCAA tourneys, were atop the country in scoring yet weren't in the top 50 in three-point shooting.
"I think the shot's too easy," he said. "I think everybody can shoot it. You've got 18 percent 3-point shooters firing them and being rewarded. It should be more difficult to make. The NBA length? That's worth it."
Again, in part -- and this is according to plenty of coaches I spoke with -- because too many guys think they should be taking that shot, the value and tactic of the three has been taken advantage of. By moving it out even further, we could discourage such long distance anarchy and put it back in the hands where the shot belongs: true shooters. Most coaches agreed: Moving the line back a foot hasn't done much to alter game strategy.
So, I ask, if the line being moved the first time hasn't resulted in a change in strategy or affected make rates, shouldn't the NCAA's rules committee convene again and broach broadening the three line again?
Unlike me, Ferry doesn't believe bringing the line out will mean the game will have better flow; he said it could cause the defense to pack in more and offense to crowd the lane still, too. But he does think it will bring back the notion of truly having three-point "specialist" on a team, a kind of weapon that was once coveted but is now been washed out of the game.
"I think it'll get kids working on shooting again," he said. "Go out and shoot an NBA three. It's far. Really far. We bring the line out, we'll have less kids taking them. But like anything else, we'll evolve. My hope is that they'll work at it. If you're going to make it worth more, it should be a challenging shot."
Ferry said something between the NBA line (23 feet, 9 inches) and the current college line would be a good spot. The FIBA line is 22 feet, 2 inches and that seems a perfect fit. You want to have some level of distinction between college and pro play, so why not make the three truly challenge but not the hurl that is the pro distance.
This should be a combo effort, by the way. Dilating three-point distance isn't the only cosmetic amelioration college hoops badly needs. There's also an expanded lane desperately in need of inauguration to the college game, and a charge circle that probably needs to be stretched to the diameter the pros play under: four feet. College only recently adopted the restrictive area arc at a three-foot diameter.
It's nice to see scoring go up this season. Offense has been improved, the data linked proves that. But with the players bigger and faster than ever before, why not give the floor a little more breathing room? Bring back a rightfully challenging three-point shot and in doing so we'll find a larger space afforded for that other beautiful strategic element now lost in college basketball: the mid-range jump shot.
College basketball has become a game of scorers instead of shooters, and this has unquestionably downgraded the product. By adjusting the three-point line again, strange as it may seem, we might eventually evolve back to what college hoops used to be while keeping the most athletic and exciting elements the game exhibits today.
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter:@MattNorlander.