We begin this piece with an e-mail…
Hey Mr. Pomeroy,
I’m a big fan of the site and it’s especially a joy to use at this time of the year. I mostly wanted to vent my frustration about analysts and the way they talk about team 3-point defense. They’ve caught on about a lot of advanced stats, but this doesn’t seem to be one.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’m a big Belmont fan, and this time around, the reason we are a 1000% lock to win in the first round (being a perpetual Cinderella to-be in the eyes of the media is getting very old) seems to be that Arizona “doesn’t like to defend the 3.” Everyone has said this, it seems. Looking at their opp. 3P%, you could maybe conclude this (they’re 274th). But as anyone who has ever visited your site knows, that number doesn’t matter much.
What I have heard no one mention is that Arizona shoots 3s at almost the same clip as Belmont, and is almost as accurate as a team. Furthermore, Belmont has proven to be pretty bad at preventing teams from taking 3s this season (304th bad). That seems to be the number that matters. So it actually could be that Arizona has the 3-point edge in this game, and they’ve completely reversed the story line. That was a digression, but I was curious if the public understanding of 3-point defense (in this case and others) frustrates you like it does me. Do you think guys like Gottlieb will ever come around on this?
Greetings, Colin. Anyone that recognizes the importance of 3PA defense has my instant respect, butI’ll admit I’m a little conflicted here. On the one hand, I share the frustration of using 3P% to define the thing called three-point defense. On the other hand, the acceptance of analytics by many of the folks covering college hoops far exceeds their acceptance in, as an example, college football to this point. So I don’t want to come off sounding like Mr. Grumpypants all the time. There are many on-air people using numbers for the betterment of everyone’s viewing experience.
But yeah, the evidence is pretty strong the Arizona can have much more control over how many three’s Belmont takes than what percentage the Bruins will make and that message isn’t getting out to enough people. Arizona didn’t guard the three-point line well early in the season and tended to get burned (though their record didn’t reflect it). It’s hard to tell if they’ve improved in this area because the Pac-12 is one of the least three-happy conferences in the country, ranking 30th among 32 conferences in 3PA%. And that’s propped up by Arizona’s own desire to take more three’s than most teams.
Unlike, say, an individual’s offensive rating, I don’t think this is a particularly difficult concept for the statistically-averse to grasp. Arizona needs to limit three-point attempts and Sean Miller’s defense is typically pretty good – although perhaps not great – at that. Belmont has great shooters and Arizona is not going to be able to affect that attribute much.
Even if people still want to buy that Arizona’s poor defensive 3P% is because of some inadequacy of their players, at least acknowledge 3PA% as a statistic that adds tremendous insight into the match-up. Belmont takes 40 percent (41st highest nationally) of their shots from 3 and makes a lot them. Arizona allows 30 percent of opponents shot from 3 (81st lowest).
The number of perimeter looks Belmont gets is an interesting aspect of this game. It’s such a basic concept that even the most casual tournament viewer could understand it and may be more compelled to watch the game because of it. Instead of discussing technical concepts like how Arizona will hedge ball screens or how Belmont’s motion offense works, just point viewers to this one thing. “It’s in Arizona’s best interest to limit three-point attempts. Let’s see how many Belmont takes.” Even if a viewer hasn’t watched a game all season, they can grasp that idea and observe it as the game unfolds.
But as Colin points out, the other end of this match-up has gone entirely unnoticed. Arizona’s offense often features four players on the floor that are not shy about taking a three. Because of Belmont’s defensive tendencies, the Wildcats will likely be taking even more threes than usual. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing for Belmont being the underdog, but it’s another interesting and easy to grasp aspect of this game. We’re a long ways from this concept going mainstream in the way that points per possession has, but the more often we bring it up, the closer we’ll get to that happening.