March is the month of reckoning in college basketball. It’s the time when individual free throws — especially front ends of 1-and-1s — can mean hundreds of thousands of extra dollars for schools and conferences.
Yes, free throws come with a lot of pressure, but unless chronically bad charity pitchers are involved, they’re first-world problems. Free throws aren’t generally a bad result on end-of-game possessions, trailing by one point.
This leads us to a simple but important observation about a number of teams with relatively lofty seeds but the kinds of inclinations which can lead to early elimination in March: They need to get to the tin, taking the ball to the basket instead of settling for moderately contested (if not extremely contested) jump shots.
It’s true that the Golden State Warriors offer convincing proof of the claim that jump shooting does not have to be an impediment on the road to a basketball championship. The Warriors’ three-point-centric approach works. The obvious reason the small-ball philosophy falls neatly into place, of course, is that Stephen Curry is the best basketball player on the planet, making us re-imagine how this game can and should be played.
The natural temptation for a lot of basketball teams and coaches — pro or college — is to think they can replicate the Warriors’ success and efficiency. The parameters of the game plan might reasonably remain intact, but expecting to match (or even come close to) Golden State’s output is foolish, because you don’t have Steph on your team (or Draymond Green as a perfect teammate).
The great risk, then, for any top NCAA team with a three-point-heavy offensive attack is that in the Big Dance, the shots just aren’t going to drop. Look at Villanova last March against North Carolina State. Only Darrun Hilliard could hit threes with any consistency. Everyone else struggled. Ryan Arcidiacono’s dribble penetration was stopped cold by Cat Barber. No one on the Villanova roster could get to the rim. The Wildcats became the first No. 1 seed in the 2015 Dance to be eliminated.
What have we seen from Villanova this season? More of a low-post presence, with Daniel Ochefu improving while also getting help from Darryl Reynolds. The Wildcats are better eqipped to make a run in March, since they have multiple frontcourt options.
While the Wildcats have learned from past March losses, two teams that are going to be high seeds one month from now need to consider Villanova’s example and make sure they avoid the fate of the 2015 edition of the Cats.
Let’s look at these two tweets for a very simple presentation of two teams’ present situations:
Oklahoma entered the Kansas State loss shooting above 46 percent from the 3-point line. Historic numbers. Went 6… https://t.co/N3283yhoUE
— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) February 9, 2016
Yep, that'll do it. https://t.co/udeqchewiC
— Jeff (BPredict) (@BPredict) February 10, 2016
The Oklahoma Sooners have shot the three with remarkable accuracy this season. It’s not as though they should abandon the long ball in March. However, any good basketball coach will tell you that threes need to be the result of an abiilty to get the ball inside, typically with dribble penetration. Being able to break down a defense, such that it has to provide help in the lane to stop the ball, sets the table for a first kickout and — if needed — a second rotational pass on the perimeter which creates a wide-open three off a catch. Getting those kinds of threes is highly valuable for a team which depends on them. The point of emphasis which can be lost, though, is that the defense has to fear penetration first. If the defense has no reason to sag into the paint in an attempt to clog a driving lane, the offense might shoot a lot of contested threes off the dribble. That’s no bueno, and even for a team such as Oklahoma, that’s the potential source of an early March exit.
The 46-percent three-point shooting referenced in the tweet above is not going to be easy to sustain. Perhaps it’s not “unsustainable,” but one game without sustained quality is all it will take to get Oklahoma booted from the Dance.
It’s instructive to note, then, that before he silenced Texas with a dagger (following a sick dribble move) in the final seconds of regulation on Monday, Buddy Hield got to the rim and drew fouls. He erased a small deficit for OU by collecting and making free throws. One thing to remember about foul shots in 2016 is that with the increased emphasis on calling small degrees of contact, teams are likely to shoot more foul shots to begin with. Taking the ball to the rim carries even better odds of earning foul shots this season. It’s a winning play late in games to begin with, but it will be an even more attractive option in 2016.
Briefly consider the other tweet above, just to round out this examination. Xavier kept tossing up threes in its Tuesday loss to Creighton (a result which gives the Bluejays their biggest win of the season and a legitimate chance of making the field of 68). That kind of shooting night is the poster child for a round-of-32 March exit against a dangerous 7 seed. It’s true that shooters have to shoot, but it’s even more true that the best way for a shooter to get into a rhythm is to see the ball go through the basket.
Shooting free throws allows that to happen.
Go to the basket and draw fouls, young men of college basketball. That’s the approach which will serve you well in March.