In college hoops, there are some things going on that you wouldn’t notice by watching a game or two. But an examination of the thousands of games played over the past few seasons reveals some interesting nuggets. Be it strategy or statistical trends, here are five facts that will raise your basketball IQ for the new season.
1. Shooting is better than ever
At some point this season you’ll hear someone whose opinion we might normally respect — a former player or coach, possibly one in either the college or professional hall of fame — complain about the state of shooting the basketball. Whether it’s at the free throw line or from behind the 3-point line, players do provide plenty of opportunities for criticism in this area.
Over the course of the season, there will be times when missed free throws cost a team a game or a squad has a disastrous shooting night from the outside. But on balance, shooting has never been better at the collegiate level. Division I teams made 69.96 percent of their free throws last season, an all-time record. And outside shooting is following a similar trend, as 34.7 percent of 3-point attempts were successful in 2015-16.
That’s the highest figure since the line was moved back to its current 20'9" distance from the hoop. And it’s a particularly impressive accomplishment considering the explosion in 3-point attempts last season. A whopping 35.4 percent of field goal attempts were taken behind the 3-point line, easily the most in the 30 seasons that the shot has been used. And that trend should continue. Last season, freshmen took 37.5 percent of their shots from long range, which was the most we’ve seen any class ever take. And second place for that honor is last season’s sophomore class. It’s hard to say if accuracy will improve again this season, but it’s very likely that the trend of taking more 3s will continue.
2. Home-court advantage is dwindling
The intensity of the crowd at a college basketball game is one of the best things about the sport. However, home-court advantage isn’t what it used to be. Last season in conference play, home teams won 60.5 percent of their games. That was slightly up from the 2014-15 season when just 59.8 percent of conference games were won by home teams, likely an all-time low. But the long-term trend, while subtle, is clear. Over the past five seasons, home teams have won 60.5 percent of conference games. The five seasons before that, home winning percentage was 61.7 percent, and the five seasons before that, home winning percentage was 62.2 percent.
As for the reason behind this trend, you might start with officiating. One of the best predictors of home-court advantage is home-foul advantage, and that’s been shrinking over time as well. Last season, teams got called for 2.44 fewer fouls at home than they did on the road. That’s the smallest figure in the past 15 seasons. But considering that the home-foul advantage last season was 24 percent less that it was in 2001-02, the earliest season for which we have data, this too may be a historically low figure.
It’s impossible to conclusively determine the root cause of this trend. Is increased oversight of officials causing them to call games more fairly? Are crowds becoming kinder and thus less influential in the officials’ work? Or are road teams actually committing fewer fouls than they used to? The cause of home-court advantage itself isn’t very well understood, so determining the cause of trends in it is even more difficult. Whatever the reason, it’s not quite as difficult for road teams to win as it used to be.
3. Head-to-head results are overrated
Early in the season it’s easy to get caught up in the result of one game. But don’t go overboard using the result to prove that the winner will be better than the loser going forward, especially if the winner won on its home floor. One way to illustrate this is to look at conference play, where the same opponents often meet twice. A home team that wins the first game by 10 points or less wins the rematch on the road just 38 percent of the time. Home teams winning by 11 to 20 points win the road rematch 52 percent of the time.
We rarely have the luxury of a rematch when it comes to those early non-conference games, but one can imagine the same principle would hold if we did. A single game between relatively equal teams doesn’t carry as much information as we’d like to think. You’re on shaky ground when valuing the outcome of a head-to-head game over the rest of each team’s schedule, especially when the home team is victorious.
Last year provided an extreme example of that when Villanova lost to Oklahoma by 23 in an early December game only to win the rematch in the Final Four by 44. While the margin was shocking, the outcome was not — Villanova was actually favored heading into the game.
When two fairly equal teams produce a lopsided game, there’s usually more to it than one team being much better than the other. Typically, something else is going on. In this case, Villanova made just 4-of-32 3-point attempts. By percentage it actually wasn’t the Wildcats’ worst shooting game. They went 1-of-11 in a 20-point win over Penn. But considering the quantity of attempts, it was their worst shooting game, and on a per-possession basis it was easily their worst offensive game of the year.
In the rematch, they went 11-of-18 from 3 and had their best offensive game of the season. (They also made an incredible 24-of-31 2-point shots.)
4. The easy 2 is a myth
Let’s talk strategy. Say your team has the ball and is down by 3-to-5 points late in the game. Conventional wisdom says to take the “easy 2.” However, teams that go for 2 in that situation don’t win any more often than teams that attempt a 3. There’s almost no difference actually, which suggests that if the defense is really willing to concede an uncontested layup, the trailing team should take it. But the easy 2 is often fool’s gold.
In these situations, since the 2009-10 season, the trailing team has made 52 percent of its 2s. A good percentage to be sure — the national average in any given season over an entire game is around 48-49 percent. So the 2s are easier when it’s late and a team’s trailing, but there aren’t a lot of sure things in that situation. Further muddying the waters is that 3s are actually more difficult in these situations with teams hitting only 25 percent of their attempts.
But no guts, no glory. The risk of taking that lower-percentage shot is often worth it for the chance of an extra point of reward. The easy 2 sounds great in principle, but even when it’s made, the opposing team usually has a chance to counter with two points from the free throw line. With a made 3, the trailing team is nearly guaranteed to be in a better position when it gets the ball back again.
Taking a 25 percent shot is a lousy way to try and win a game, but keep in mind that in both cases a team trailing by 3-to-5 points with 20-to-35 seconds left has about a 6 percent chance of victory. It’s tough to win in that situation, and if the trailing team gets an open 3, it shouldn’t pass it up.
5. The 2-for-1 is overrated
Let’s talk more strategy. As the 3-point shot has exploded in popularity, people have realized that 3 is better than 2. At the end of a half people are increasingly realizing that two is better than one, as in possessions. If a team gets the ball with between 45 and 60 seconds remaining, they should get a shot up before the 30-second mark so as to guarantee themselves another possession before the end of the half.
While the idea of gaming the clock and giving yourself an additional possession is a noble one, in practice it doesn’t work out so cleanly. There are a lot of forces working against that perfect scenario. The main problem is that the two-for-one occasionally ends up being something else. Offensive rebounds can make it a one-for-one. Furthermore, while you’d like to think that a team could take the very last shot in the half when the shot clock is off, the defensive team occasionally ends up with a few seconds left on the clock. Not enough for a quality possession, but enough to get points here and there.
The end result is that teams that attempt to get a two-for-one, shooting with at least 35 seconds on the clock, will result in a team getting an extra possession 55 percent of the time. However, a team that doesn’t try for the two-for-one still gets an extra possession 30 percent of the time. There’s still a benefit to try for the two-for-one, but the gains of doing so are a lot smaller that they would seem on the surface. Once the season begins, we’ll all be second-guessing coaching decisions, but this is one issue where we could save our strongest criticism.