HOUSTON -- Burdened with a less-than-talented shooting team a few years ago, Jay Wright made a conscious decision to recruit guys who could shoot, rather than just score.
The Villanova coach loaded up on them: Ryan Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart and Phil Booth and Jalen Brunson.
"Then I thought, 'What am I going to do with these guys?'" Wright said.
So he turned to a guy he knew wouldn’t just have one answer, he’d have a notebook’s worth.
Wright’s former assistant, Billy Lange, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, is an analytics savant, never as happy as when he can dig into the research on some aspect of a basketball game.
True to form, Lange responded to Wright’s request for in-depth 3-point strategies (both offensively and defensively) with a 37-page manifesto that is an ode to analytics, complete with color-coded pie charts, graphs, and enough numbers and general math to make Stephen Hawking glassy eyed.
"I read it all. One time," Wright said with a laugh. "Billy is always studying something. I’m not great at that stuff. I want the answers but I don’t want to spend the time looking at it. Like everything with Billy, he always gives me good ideas. But if he has 10 great ideas, I might implement two and be able to handle it."
The two pieces Wright chose, though, are nothing less than the core of this Villanova team’s identity, and a large reason why the Wildcats are in the Final Four.
Shoot 'em up and sleep in the streets is what Wright calls his offensive game plan, a layman’s term for Lange’s more scientific discovery, which essentially boils down to this:
Offensive success comes not from shooting a high percentage of 3-pointers, but in volume attempts. On the flip side, a winning defensive strategy isn’t based on limiting an opponent’s shooting percentage, but on reducing the number of shots it takes.
"The team that makes the most [shots] wins, not the team that shoots the best percentage," Wright said.
That sounds simplistic -- and in some ways it is -- but to make it actually work takes a pretty nervy coach, one that doesn’t mind hearing as many clanks as swishes during a game.
With Wright, Villanova has a light so green it burns almost chartreuse. The Wildcats rank seventh in the nation in 3-pointers attempted, having launched 927 this season. They are the only school that is not a mid-major or low major among the top 10, ranked ahead even of national semifinal opponent Oklahoma, a team that's very identity is wrapped up in shooting 3-pointers.
"It’s a lot of fun to play this way because you don’t have to be afraid to shoot," Jenkins said.
There are, however, two catches with Wright’s willingness to let guys launch ’em.
One, they have to take smart shots.
Villanova has not always -- and still isn’t always -- great at that. When the Wildcats lost to the Sooners earlier this year, they connected on just 4 of 32 attempts from the arc. Wright had no problem with the 32 attempts. He could even stomach the 12.5 percent.
He couldn’t live with where they came from.
Rewatching that game film, the Wildcats admitted, was like watching a bad home movie.
"Watching the film, I’m taking terrible shots. Kris is taking terrible shots. Jalen is taking terrible shots," Arcidiacono said. "We all were. We’ll take 32 again, just not those 32."
The second requirement to earn Wright’s permissive offense: The Wildcats have to defend if they want to shoot.
"You don’t play defense, you’re not shooting," Booth said. "Because you’re on the bench."
Frankly as much as the Wildcats are known for their 3-point offense, the way they defend the arc -- following Lange’s suggestion -- is the real secret to the team’s success, Wright believes.
Every which way Lange broke down the data proved the same thing -- the more 3s opponents attempted (as opposed to the more they made), the more likely Villanova was to lose the game.
In 13 of 27 games in the 2012-13 season (the data Lange used), Villanova's opponent shot 20 or more 3-pointers. The Wildcats lost seven of them.
No surprise, then, this season, the numbers are skewed heavily in Villanova’s favor. To their 927 attempts, opponents take just 796 from the arc.
"If we look it and say they shot 28 percent from 3, but say they made eight and we only made three, they’re going to beat you," Wright said. "It’s not that complicated."
No, it just looked like it in pie chart form.