Rest in threes

SAINT LOUIS COACH Rick Majerus knows how much the three-point shot means for college basketball. Since earning his first headcoaching job at Marquette in 1983, three years before the long-distance line was implemented by the NCAA, he's watched the sport's popularity swell. But as the three celebrates its 25th anniversary this season, Majerus laments a part of the game that's been lost. "The midrange game is not part of college basketball anymore," he says. "It's the long ball, the layup and then there's very little in between."

Those 64-year-old eyes aren't deceiving Majerus. According to Synergy Sports Technology, just four D1 teams (Oklahoma, California, Austin Peay and Liberty) had attempted more than 200 jump shots between 17 feet and 20 feet, 9 inches in their half-court offenses through Feb. 21. By comparison, 176 teams had attempted at least double that amount from 20 feet, 9 inches and beyond, with Florida leading the flurry. No major-conference squad had tried (720) or hit (288) more threes than the Gators, and four of their starting five were averaging at least four attempts. That includes 6-foot-10 junior forward Erik Murphy, who represents a growing wave of 4's forced to adapt to a college game that's played almost exclusively above the rim and beyond the arc. "So many of our guys have the ability to knock them down," says Gators senior guard Erving Walker. "It'd be silly to run an offense that doesn't take advantage of that."

Florida coach Billy Donovan knows better than anyone just how far the three can take a team. He was a senior guard at Providence when the line was introduced, and while most teams ignored the new shot -- much as their pro brethren did when it was introduced in the NBA in 1979 -- the No. 6-seeded Friars rode the long ball to the 1987 Final Four under a young Rick Pitino, making 8.2 a game. It wasn't long before other coaches followed Pitino's lead. During the 1986-87 season, D1 teams averaged
9.2 three-point attempts per game. Ten years later, that number was 17.1. In the past five seasons, despite the line moving out from 19 feet, 9 inches in 2007-08, it's up to 18.5.

And the threes should keep rising as coaches increasingly recruit with the line in mind. "There aren't enough back-to-the-basket big men to go around," says Cal head man Mike Montgomery. "So teams look for forwards who are comfortable away from the basket and use four-out, one-in offensive sets to open up the floor. Like the spread offense in college football, the three has proved to be a great equalizer."

Call it the Gonzaga Effect. From 1999 to 2001, the mid-major Zags reached three straight Sweet 16s with a host of shooters and two posts (6-8 Casey Calvary and 6-11 Axel Dench) who could step back and force defenders to step out. During the 2010 and 2011 NCAA tournaments, Butler used a similar recipe, spreading the floor with 6-8 forwards Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard en route to consecutive title games. Expect that trend to continue this March, with Creighton's 6-7 Doug McDermott and UNLV's 6-8 Chace Stanback firing away from the great beyond.

As in physics, though, every action is met with an equal and opposite reaction: Defenses have been redesigned to keep shooters out of range or force them toward the basket. "In man-to-man, you need tall, athletic guards who can defend a 1 or a 4 and contest every three-pointer," says BYU coach Dave Rose. "In a zone, players have to start with their heels on the three-point arc, unlike the old days, when their toes were at the line." These strategies have opened up one shot in particular -- the midrange jumper. So the question now is: Can players be retrained to pull up?

"Coach Montgomery tells us to know where our feet are in relation to the line at all times," says Cal sophomore guard Allen Crabbe, who led the Pac-12 with 70 threes through Feb. 21. "But he also tells us an open shot is a good shot whether you're behind the line or three steps inside of it."

Not all coaches are so flexible. "If the three isn't there, my job is to go to the hole or kick it out to an open three-point shooter," says Florida's Walker. And with so many teams being built around the perimeter, the outlook for the midrange game's comeback appears bleak. For it to have a chance, coaches are hoping players with pro dreams start to emulate the multidimensional games of NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, whose strong jumpers complement their dunks and deep threes.

Still, the college game might have to take another page out of the NBA rulebook, where the line is listed at 23 feet, 9 inches. "Overall, the three has been good for the game," Montgomery says, "but I wish the line were a step or two back. It would open up the floor even more, and you'd see more midrange shots and true post play."

For coaches like Majerus, that would certainly be a sight for sore eyes.

Bill Doherty is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.