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What Saved the Season: Baylor Basketball’s 3-Point Revolution

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Baylor unleashed the three

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The 3-point shot has taken over basketball at every competitive level, and the 2019 Bears were part of that revolution.

Baylor hasn’t always attempted a ton of 3-point shots. From 2010-2018, Baylor never attempted 35% or more of their shots from beyond the arc in a season. They ranked sub 190 nationally in 3-point attempts six times in the 2010’s.

The Bears built exceptional offenses without firing too many triples. The Bears ranked top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency 8-of-10 times this decade. Only Duke and Kentucky had more top 25 adjusted offensive efficiency years.

The 2019 Bears changed their formula. The Bears attempted 40.8% of their shots from beyond the arc. That didn’t seem possible for this team entering conference play. Baylor was the second worst 3-point percentage team among power seven conference schools in November and December.

As the box and whisker plot above shows, Baylor was radically different in 2019. Their 40.8% 3-point attempt rate in 2019 was nearly three standard deviations from the mean. In less nerdy speak, that’s something that is outside of what we’d expect to see in 98% of Baylor’s seasons based on the previous nine years. And in even less nerdy speak—yet still pretty nerdy—that means we’d expect to see Baylor shoot that many threes one time in 81 seasons.

The Bears had to take a risk when Tristan Clark went out for the season. Clark was easily Baylor’s best player during non-conference. The reliable big man led the country in field goal percentage and was nearly a guaranteed bucket when opponents decided not to double him:

With Clark gone, the Bears had to find a new way to score. They gambled that Makai Mason, King McClure, Mario Kegler, Devonte Bandoo and Jared Butler could collectively be much better 3-point shooters in conference play than they were during non-conference. They hit on four of the five and were much better as a group:

Baylor shot substantially better in conference play from deep. Four of their five main shooters were much better. Only McClure declined during conference play, and he had a pretty good excuse with a major knee injury limiting him. When the Bears needed McClure, he drilled 7-of-11 triples at Oklahoma State and made three big threes against Syracuse.

The Bears took off from three in the second half of the season. They did that in four main ways. First, they embraced deep 3-point shots. If defenses weren’t going to pick Baylor up until they were close to the 3-point line, then the Bears were ready to let them fly:

Second, Baylor embraced taking more off the dribble threes. Although those are less accurate than off the catch shots, they’re still valuable. Those shots guarantee a chance at a higher value 3-point shot, and they ensure the offense doesn’t hunt for a shot and turn it over—a real concern for a Baylor team that ranked 258th nationally in turnover rate:

Third, Baylor worked more lifts into their pick-and-rolls. Under that look, Baylor’s other guard or wing away from the ball would “lift up” as the big man rolled to the hoop. That ensured if the defender on the wing tried to tag the roll man that the Bears would get an open three:

Finally, Baylor ran plenty of sets to get 3-point looks. In their “hook” set, Baylor ran a version of floppy for Butler. He had the option to run around a double screen on one side or a single screen on another side. The freshman hit 42.2% of his threes during conference play, so getting him an open look gave us something to believe in:

Baylor realized the they needed to go insane from three, and they figured out a path to get there. Unlike “Game of Thrones” where the last season has made almost no sense, Scott Drew and his staff had a plan for their ending. When the Bears faced Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, they knew the Orange’s zone led to a lot of 3-point attempts. Baylor combined some of what worked earlier: off the dribble looks, deep threes and a new wrinkle of working the ball to spots in the zone to overload the action. Add it up, and Baylor attempted 65% of their shots from deep, which blows away any other Baylor NCAA Tournament game:

It’s never easy to do something differently or embrace change. There’s a reason football coaches punt on 4th and short. When they lose after punting, the majority of the outrage isn’t about punting (though hopefully this will change). But if they go for it, people seem to remember that outlier coach that goes for it.

The real lesson of the 2019 Bears is not about the importance of the 3-point shot. It’s a story about a group and a coaching staff that took a wild risk and it paying off. The 2020 Bears—with Clark back from injury, most of the core back and the addition of Davion Mitchell and Macio Teague—have a much higher ceiling than last year’s bunch. And with a staff willing to play the best style to match their talent, the next decade may start better than the last one did.