The (short-lived) basketball panic of 2023

Is the basketball to blame for a dip in 3-point shooting -- or is it just regular tournament woes? Steph Chambers/Getty Images

After watching players in the past two men's NCAA tournaments miss 3-pointers at a higher rate than in previous years, the conventional wisdom was loud and clear last week: It's the ball.

"Bring back the other basketballs," former Villanova star Collin Gillespie tweeted.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few told Stadium's Jeff Goodman that the "brand-new slick basketballs" need to be "inflated less."

"My star point guard just said he hates them," one 2023 postseason team's staffer told ESPN.

An assistant at a different program said the only player on the roster who liked the ball had already used it in high school.

One staffer for a team that reached the Elite Eight told ESPN that in the tournament "the balls are always too fresh and aired up."

"Contributed to the terrible 3-point shooting you're seeing in the tournament," an assistant for still another NCAA tournament team volunteered.

"Terrible" shooting? That will of course be in the eye of the beholder.

Through the first 64 games of the 2023 men's NCAA tournament, teams have shot 31.9% on their 3s. That is similar to the 31.8% figure recorded over the whole tournament last year but is down appreciably from the 33.7% success rate teams posted in 2021. Attempt rates have remained relatively steady across all three years.

Meanwhile, in this year's NIT, players are shooting 30.5% from outside with three games still to be played. While that's roughly the same as the 30.8% success rate the field posted a year ago, it's down considerably from the 35.6% shooting displayed in 2021.

Finally, in the 2023 women's NCAA tournament teams to this point have converted 30.4% of their 3-point attempts. This number is virtually identical to last year's mark (30.6%) and again a good deal lower than 2021's figure (33.6%).

As for the basketball itself, the Wilson Evo NXT was rolled out for the first time for all three postseason NCAA events starting in 2022.

Cause and effect or coincidence?

"Anyone know the deal?"

Within the prominent Division I college basketball postseason landscape, the ball is far from the only object of furtive speculation. When Iowa State recorded one of the lowest shooting percentages in men's NCAA tournament history against Pitt in this year's round of 64, for example, the center of attention was the basket, specifically the rim.

Pitt upsets Iowa State in low-scoring battle

Nelly Cummings drains a 3 to pile on to Pitt's lead late in the second half.

By the same token, it wouldn't be an NCAA men's Final Four without concerns being raised yet again about shooting backgrounds and "basketball being played in football stadiums." For the record, teams playing in the microscopic sample size afforded by the 2022 men's Final Four shot an impressive 36.4% on their 3s at New Orleans' notably cavernous Superdome.

Conversely, the ball itself has mostly been an afterthought. That changed in March 2022, however, and the scrutiny predated any numbers on 3-point shooting.

For one thing, the ball's color is brighter, a fact that drew immediate "don't adjust your TV" attention at this time a year ago. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tweeted that the new ball "looked like the $5.99 specials from Walmart. ... Anyone know the deal?"

Nevertheless, results through the first day of the 2022 men's round of 64 showed teams were converting a normal share (33.3%) of their attempts from beyond the arc.

Then an unexpected turn of events occurred. Despite a vein of social media wisdom theorizing that 3-point accuracy should improve as a tournament progresses (as stronger teams advance), the opposite happened. The success rate on 3-point tries dropped, and the final 2022 men's NCAA tournament number came in at 31.8%. Now, this year's tournament is producing a similar success rate.

Could it really be the ball?

A contract through 2028

In the view of Wilson, the manufacturer of the Evo NXT, no, it is not the ball. "From a feedback standpoint, the response has been positive from coaches and players across our many partnerships," Wilson's general manager of team sports Kevin Murphy told ESPN.

"The Evo NXT basketballs are available year-round for players to utilize throughout the regular season," Wilson said. "Most teams and players do use the ball year-round, so this is nothing new when it's March Madness time; players are very familiar with the Evo NXT across conferences."

Murphy's statement is supported by some of the comments made by players and coaches to ESPN. Prior to the women's Sweet 16, for example, Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley gave the Evo NXT a thumbs-up when asked specifically about it. "It's a brighter orange," she said. "It feels good."

Several men's and women's programs used the Evo NXT all season long. One such program is Boston College. Eagles women's assistant coach Sean Ehlbeck told ESPN, "I love the Wilson balls. ... I've never heard [the players] complain about them."

For its part, the NCAA responded to ESPN by saying its "post-tournament procedures" include collecting "feedback from participating schools on a wide range of topics." The NCAA added that its contract with Wilson runs through 2028.

To be sure, 3-point success has long fluctuated from year to year and even from round to round in tournaments. If before-and-after numbers appear to indict the status quo, there are other figures available to suggest a more nuanced picture.

Most obviously, free throw accuracy has held up just fine in the postseason with the new basketball. Teams are draining 72.9% of their tries at the foul line in the 2023 men's NCAA tournament. That's slightly better than the 71.6% figure Division I has recorded with various basketballs all season. It also tracks seamlessly with what we saw in the NCAA tournament last year (72.9%) and the year before that with a different ball entirely (72.3%).

The WNBA too has seen no change in 3-point accuracy since the Evo NXT was rolled out as the league's official ball in 2021. As for the college game, the figures from the past two women's NCAA tournaments are at least open to interpretation due to a coincidence in timing. The women's 3-point line was moved back in the same season that the new Wilson ball was introduced for the postseason.

Or consider the exemplary 36% 3-point shooting recorded in the men's game in the 2021 NIT with "the other basketballs." This number was posted across a mere 16 games. Due to the pandemic, that year's event was scaled down to a 16-team bracket (plus a third-place game).

With just three fewer contests than the 2021 NIT, the 2023 men's Big Ten tournament also might be worthy of our attention. In an apparent attempt to better prepare its teams for the field of 68, the Big Ten adopted the NCAA's own postseason ball for use in its conference tournament.

The preparation might not have helped as much as the league hoped: Michigan State was the lone Big Ten team to reach the Sweet 16. Still, the box scores left behind from this well-intentioned attempt reveal that teams shot 33.1% on their 3s with the Evo NXT. If that success rate isn't particularly impressive, it's at least a good deal closer to the 34.0% that all of Division I has shot for the entire season.

Not to mention, one of those Big Ten teams went on to record one of the finest displays of 3-point shooting we've seen to this point in the 2023 men's NCAA tournament. Could it have been familiarity with the "new" ball?

"The ball sure didn't affect Funk!"

Andrew Funk gets hot from beyond the arc as Penn State advances

Andrew Funk drains eight 3-pointers in the Nittany Lions' decisive victory over Texas A&M.

If anyone should have been in favor of a ball posing problems for shooters this March, it would have been Buzz Williams. Instead, the Texas A&M coach watched Penn State ring up 13 made 3s in just 22 attempts against his Aggies in the round of 64. Andrew Funk personally recorded a stellar 8 of 10 performance from beyond the arc as the Nittany Lions defeated A&M 76-59.

Williams offered a succinct verdict on what he observed firsthand: "The ball sure didn't affect Funk!"

Not surprisingly, Funk is indeed a fan of the Evo NXT. Referring to Wilson's game balls, Funk told ESPN, "I actually liked them. ... I shot pretty well."

Pretty well is an understatement. In six games with the Wilson ball across the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, Funk connected on 44% of his 3s. When asked why his positive opinion of the Evo NXT hasn't necessarily been seconded by others, he pointed to game balls that "are newer, a little more slick, a little more bouncy."

Funk isn't alone in expanding the question beyond one particular brand of ball. Williams, for one, thinks the issue is instead the presence of multiple different basketballs, plural.

"We shot poorly regardless of [the] ball," he told ESPN, "but constantly changing/practicing with different ones because of [the] opponent is silly in my opinion."

With regard to any particular type or brand of basketball, it would appear mere familiarity breeds contentment. In fact, when calls are made to bring back the "other" basketballs, what's left unsaid is that doing so would mean bringing back other Wilson basketballs.

Wilson was already the official ball of the NCAA when Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse cut down the nets two decades ago. Before the Evo NXT, the Wilson ball branded as The Solution was used in every postseason from 2003 through 2021. Per the company, several conferences used the Evo NXT in the men's and women's conference championships in addition to the Big Ten, such as the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, American, WAC and more.

Major-conference programs that used the Evo NXT as their home-court ball during the 2022-23 regular season, according to the company, included Kansas, UCLA, Auburn, Maryland and Northwestern. The ball was an afterthought in discussions of these programs. Then came the postseason, and for a second consecutive year, 3-point accuracy dropped across 60-odd games in the men's and women's NCAA tournaments.

Postseason 3-point shooting is typically, though not unfailingly, worse than what we see over the course of a preceding regular season. In 2023, this gap in men's 3-point accuracy is notable and indeed larger than it was last year. It is not, however, entirely unprecedented. We saw a similar gap in 2018 with The Solution.

While the overall figures for shooting in the 2023 men's and women's postseasons remain low, in recent days relative silence has descended on this topic.

Possibly this development is related to the fact that the men's Sweet 16 teams shot a robust 36.7% on their 3s in the 2023 regional semifinals. This level of accuracy represents the best number in that round in seven years and the second-best "ever" in the sports-reference.com data vault dating back to 2011.

The excellent 3-point shooting in eight Sweet 16 games merely improved the 2023 men's tournament's overall success rate by a fraction of a percentage point, however. All the misses recorded over the tournament's first 52 games are still on the books. So, the fact that shooting can blow so hot and cold from round to round suggests that many factors are in play in addition to the ball.

Whether the topic under discussion is excellent shooting in the men's Sweet 16 or a low level of accuracy through the same event's round of 32, could it be the ball?

That answer might be yes, partly, in good shooting times and in bad.