Thoughts on 3 Point Rate and A Possible Exception To The 40% Eliminator Rule

3 Point Rate is defined as: (3 Point FG attempts/ Total FG attempts). Since 1998, only three teams have made the Final 4 with a 3 Point Rate above 40%. Here are their stats, with 3 Point FG % first, followed by 3 Point Rate, and national ranking in 3 Point FG%:

2011 VCU: 37.0/41.2 (55th)

2005 Louisville: 40.0/ 41.3 (10th)

2001 Duke:  38.5/41.8 (29th)

Since just 3 of the last 72 Final Four teams (4.1%) have shown a Three Point Rate above 40%, this trend is significant enough to eliminate from Final Four consideration any team that shows this very infrequently successful profile. This makes sense when you think about it. A team that relies so heavily upon making more difficult shots in order to win is going to be less likely to be able to repeat making these shots over consecutive games in a one-and-done sort of scenario, and the historical stats support this rather obvious trend.

Not surprisingly, all three of these teams shot fairly well from behind the arc in terms of national ranking, which allowed for them to overcome this extreme historical red flag in terms of inefficient shot allocation and advance to the Final Four in spite of it. This got me to thinking though: Have there ever been teams that showed a 3 Point Rate above 40%, but actually shot a higher 3 Point FG% than that?

Since 1998, there have only been four such teams in the tournament:

2014 Michigan: 40.2/ 40.0 (#2 seed, lost in Elite 8)

2008 American: 40.8/ 40.2 (#15 seed, lost 1st Rd)

2002 Utah: 40.5/ 40.3 (#12 seed, lost in 1st Rd)

2000: Creighton: 41.6/40.4 (#10 seed, lost in 1st Rd)

Also, 2010 Cornell shot 43.3% from distance with a 39.8% Three Point Rate, dangerously close to the threshold but just below it. That team, as a #12 seed, made a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16.

We can draw two main conclusions from this data.

– Since 1998, 1182 teams have earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament, and a mere 4 of them fit this profile described as: Three Point FG % > Three Point Rate when Three Point Rate > 40%. That’s 0.034%. You don’t have to be a mathematician to ascertain that such teams are extremely rare.

– Even with such a small sample size, it is interesting to observe that none of the four teams that did fit this profile technically underperformed their seed. Three lower-seeded teams lost in the first round as they should have, while second seeded Michigan advanced to the Elite 8 as they should have.  The fact that the sharp-shooting Cornell team made their underdog Sweet 16 run with a team heavily dependent upon the three point shot is worth remembering.

Amazingly, this year’s tournament will see two of these very rare profiles in the same year, which has never happened before:

Indiana 42.0/ 41.1 (5th)

Oklahoma 42.8/ 40.5 (2nd)

While historical red flags do admittedly merit tossing the other highly regarded team in this year’s field with a 3 Point Rate above 40%- that’s Villanova (33.5/ 44.5) – from Final Four consideration, one might tread more carefully with Indiana and Oklahoma, as the obscurity of their success behind the arc in combination with their affinity for shooting behind it is a massive wildcard and not something that is commonly observed among tournament teams. Additionally, the spread between their respective 3 Point FG% and 3 Point Rate (0.9% for Indiana and a whopping 2.3% for Oklahoma) is larger than the average of even those four above (0.55%). These are two very rare teams indeed.

In layman’s terms, we could make the fairly obvious statement that a team that lives and dies by the three is a lot more likely to make a deep tournament run when they are the very best in the nation at shooting the three. It is interesting indeed that over the years, teams that shoot the largest percentage of their shots from distance are not usually among the best at shooting from distance, and the teams best at shooting from distance are not usually among the teams that allocate a higher portion of their shots from distance when compared with other teams.

In fact, digging deeper, I was only able to find six more teams over those last 18 seasons in all of Division 1 that even showed both a Three Point Pct and a Three Point Rate both above 40%, even with Three Point Rate > Three Point Pct:

2006 Notre Dame: 40.3/ 41.6 (no tourney)

2005 Louisville: 40.0/ 41.3 (#4 seed, lost in Final 4)

2005 Samford: 42.1/ 50.1 (no tourney)

2004 St. Joseph’s 40.4/ 42.5 (#1 seed, lost in Elite 8)

2003 Penn 41.1/ 42.6 (#11 seed, lost in 1st Round)

1998 New Mexico 40.5/ 41.5 (#4 seed, lost in 2nd Round)

CONCLUSION: I’m not sure I can explain why, generally speaking, that the teams best at shooting the three don’t take the largest percentage of their shots from three, or why the teams that take the largest percentage of their shots from three are usually not very good at hitting them. It seems very inefficient from a statistical standpoint, and that falls on coaching and a lack of analytical focus to some extent. But, given the rarity of teams such as Oklahoma and Indiana that actually do utilize their shooting in a manner that makes sense, I would be very hesitant to toss them out of consideration simply due to their 3 Point Rate being above the historical threshold when considering that their 3 Point FG% is actually higher. It’s worth wondering if this could be the exception to the “40% 3 Point Rate Eliminator Rule”, and makes intuitive sense at the very least.

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