Inside the numbers: The future of the 3-pointer in college hoops

All the numbers point to the same thing: College basketball teams shoot 3s in large numbers. Will that trend continue? Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

Wofford's Fletcher Magee just had the third-most-productive season of 3-point shooting in the history of Division I basketball, and no one thought it all that unusual.

The 6-foot-4 junior from Orlando, Florida, drained 148 shots from beyond the arc in 2017-18, including two games played against non-D-I opponents. If the Terriers had been able to mount a run in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament instead of losing in the first game, Steph Curry's record of 162 3-pointers at Davidson in 2007-08 would have been in real jeopardy.

Magee's skills are real, yet he also has a strong statistical -- and cultural -- wind at his back. The sport of college basketball has never been as perimeter-oriented as it is right now.

Per kenpom.com data tracking, 37.5 percent of all attempts in D-I this season were launched from beyond the arc. That number represents a dramatic increase from the 16 percent of shots the 3 accounted for when the line was introduced to the college game in 1986-87. (To say nothing of the 2 percent of attempts the NBA recorded with its newly adopted "gimmick" in the second season after its introduction in 1979-80.)

This 31-year history of the 3-point shot in college basketball gives us several unmistakable trend lines with which to peer into the future. We don't know what tomorrow will bring in terms of 3s and college basketball, but we can make some informed guesses based on what's happened so far.

The 3-pointer's power is an accident of integers that took decades to truly unleash

If Dr. James Naismith had given us a game in which "normal" baskets counted as three points, maybe the NBA would have adopted a four-point shot four decades ago. In that case, perimeter shooting would be far less of a big deal in college basketball in 2018. In fact, as bizarre as it may sound, it's conceivable that Magee would be perfectly invisible to an ESPN.com writer and Curry would be just another NBA journeyman if shots from the field were worth four and three points instead of three and two.

Each "4" would give you only a 33 percent premium in scoring on top of what you already get from a 3. In that strange world (going by current shooting percentages), it would be 100 shots inside the arc that would net you the best scoring return on your effort.

It's the full 50 percent scoring bonus that a 3 gives you over and above a 2 that makes Curry an idol to young players everywhere and gives the 3-point shot its undeniable kick. It's unlikely that the powers that be in the NBA circa 1980 understood this fully when they borrowed the idea from the old American Basketball Association (ABA) and used the next-highest whole number for the new shot. But this is the sport they gave us.

It's a sport in which, unusually, almost everyone's in stylistic agreement, from the players on the court and the coaches on the sidelines to the fans in the stands and the analytic types crunching the numbers. With the possible exception of announcers who still speak of "settling" for these shots, everyone wants to see 3s being made. The reason is simple: 3s are 1.5 times as valuable as 2s.

Meet the most 3-point-oriented conference ever

In any given season, there will customarily be a small number of programs nationally, mostly mid-majors, that shoot more 3s than 2s. The most perimeter-oriented team we've ever seen was Savannah State in 2016-17, when the Tigers launched 57 percent of their attempts from deep.

Still, that rate of attempts, somewhere between 50 and 57 percent, has been recorded by several teams over the past 15 years, up to and including major-conference types like Washington State in 2016-17 and John Beilein-era West Virginia back in 2005-06. Outliers are always with us.

What has changed is that the sport as a whole has become more 3-centric. So never mind Savannah State -- entire conferences have already shown us what the future will look like.

This season, teams in Magee's Southern Conference launched 44 percent of their shots from beyond the arc in league play. That makes the 2017-18 SoCon the most 3-reliant conference we've ever seen. More importantly, this is the direction that college basketball as a whole is headed.

The rate of increase in 3-point shooting is such that, other things being equal, Division I would be expected to cross the 40-percent-of-attempts line in the 2019-20 season. That would (or will) be a remarkable moment. From just 1-in-50 tries in the NBA in 1981 to 2-in-5 in college basketball four decades later.

Then again, the moment might not arrive as soon as expected. History tells us one way to decrease the number of 3-point attempts is to move the line back. It happened in 2008-09, and it could happen again soon.

The 2018 NIT might be the future, and it works

The NCAA is using this year's NIT as a laboratory of sorts, and experimenting with several potential rule changes. One of those experiments concerns the location of the 3-point line. NIT teams have played with an arc that matches what's used in both FIBA and the WNBA, meaning the line in most places on the court is about 20 inches farther away from the basket.

As one might expect, the shooting that resulted in the first round of the NIT was ugly. The shock of change was readily apparent, and teams made just 31 percent of their 3s in that round.

Nevertheless, the teams that survived appeared to get the hang of the new line rather quickly. The whole-tournament numbers will likely net out with NIT players hitting about 34 percent of their 3s and devoting roughly 36 percent of their tries to shots from beyond the arc. Those are percentages the sport can live with.

In other words, moving the line back in 2019-20, if it does happen, can be expected to slow the rate of increase in the number of 3-point attempts. But it is likely there will indeed still be an increase.

Basically, the trend over three decades is for more and more 3-pointers in college basketball. Moving the line back a reasonable distance can only influence the speed of that change as opposed to halting it. The 3 will still be 1.5 times as valuable as a 2, and young players will still want to be like Curry, or maybe even like Fletcher Magee.

In fact, one of those young players will come along and break Curry's college record for made 3-pointers in a season. It's only a matter of time in a 3-point world.