Joe Sherburne, a graduate student forward for the UMBC men’s basketball team, has a simple explanation for people who ask him why he takes more 3-point shots rather than drive to the basket for a layup or dunk.
“I just tell people, ‘I’ll dunk when it’s worth three points,’ ” quipped Sherburne, whose 45.0 success rate from behind the 3-point arc in 2017-18 is the third-best single-season mark in school history. “So you can have your dunks. I’ll stand behind the line.”
Sherburne’s comment illustrates college basketball’s reliance on the 3-pointer, which has been borne out by statistics. According to numbers provided by the NCAA, the average number of 3-point shots attempted has grown from 9.2 in 1987 — the first year the 3-point arc was installed — to 21.9 in 2018, which is an all-time high.
The trend was perhaps the least surprising news to area Division I coaches like Morgan State’s Todd Bozeman.
“I think the game is just progressing,” he said. “When you put the 3-point line in, you want more. Do you want 2 or do you want 3? Coaches say the worst shot is a long 2. So you might as well back up and take the 3.”
The number of 3-point shots hoisted in the NCAA mirrors the pattern in the NBA, which is averaging 31.1 3-point attempts in 2018-19 — a number that is an all-time high and massively dwarfs the 2.8 tries in 1979-80 when the 3-point line was introduced.
“There’s only one way to win in the NBA, and that’s to make shots,” Towson coach Pat Skerry said. “I think in college, you can win shooting 3s, you can win pressing. You saw Carolina win the championship a couple years ago by shooting very few 3s and beating you up on the glass. I think the beauty of college basketball is you can win in different ways. In the NBA, there’s only one way. The Warriors are going to win — even though I’m a Celtics fan — as long as they’re healthy because they have the most guys who can make shots. In college, there’s a lot of ways to win.”
Loyola Maryland sophomore guard Isaiah Hart said he began to notice a shift in players’ preference to shoot 3-pointers during his freshman year at Whitefield Academy in Georgia in 2013-14.
“That’s when the 3-point shot became really special,” he recalled. “It was less about going inside and playing outside. Now it’s about everybody playing outside and stretching the floor.”
Programs are constantly searching for recruits who can shoot 3-pointers, according to new Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad.
“For us in the recruiting process, that’s something we look for because to be able to stretch it just opens up the floor for guys that can drive it and get it in there,” he said. “So instead of just one through three being able to shoot, one through five has become a premium.”
Shooting 3-pointers is not an exercise in futility. In addition to trying to outscore the opponent, a team that can make its long-range shots can force the defense to extend itself, which can open up the interior for higher-percentage attempts like layups and dunks.
But Morgan State senior guard Martez Cameron said a team can’t lean solely on 3-pointers.
“You need at least one inside presence because you can’t just live outside,” he said. “You’ve got to go inside sometimes and make a defense collapse to open up those outside shots.”
While college basketball teams averaged an all-time-best 7.7 3-pointers in 2018, the average percentage made of 35.2 trails the all-time high of 38.4 percent in 1987.
UMBC coach Ryan Odom said defenses are more mindful of offenses running plays to open up 3-point shooters.
“I think nationally teams are utilizing [the 3-point shot] more, but I also think that defenses are focusing on taking it away,” he said. “So we’ve faced that. In two years, we’re known as a good 3-point shooting team. So naturally, teams get out there and they contest it more.”
Real-life examples like the Golden State Warriors’ trio of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden will continue to inspire college basketball players to work on their long-range shooting. Sherburne is one player who said he won’t deviate from his game, which includes a career-high 187 3-point attempts last season.
“I’ll still shoot 3s,” said Sherburne, who is the second player in Retrievers history to sink more than 60 3-pointers in each of his first three years. “If that means I get to shoot more, that’s great.”