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Villanova Basketball’s Shot Distribution: How Many Threes Is Too Many?

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Villanova is playing a dangerous game, taking more threes and fewer layups than ever.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

There is just one major conference team in top twelve in 3PT attempt rate. I bet you can guess who it is.

Villanova currently ranks fourth in the NCAA in 3PT attempt rate (3PTr), taking 51.8% of their shots from beyond the arc. The Wildcats get to the rim for just 27.7% of all field goal attempts, per Hoop Math, which ranks 338th in the nation. Among the top ten in 3PTr, only the Wildcats have more than 13 wins this season, while six of the ten have a record of .500 or worse. That begs the question, is Villanova’s polarizing shot distribution a science experiment gone too far, or the continuing evolution of a novel strategy?

The Evolution of Villanova’s Shot Mix

I’d like to think that I’m open to all variants of basketball experimentation, and that my tastes are [Christian Grey voice] “unconventional.” However, reckoning with Villanova’s shot distribution has been difficult. It’s clear Villanova is pushing the envelope for a major conference team yet again, but even by NBA standards the Wildcats take a staggering amount of threes. Heck, they take more threes than the Morey-ball Houston Rockets, who, at 51.5%, lead the NBA in 3PTr by 9.5%.

Still, Villanova hit a record setting number of 3PT shots last season, and I thought to myself ‘it couldn’t be any more extreme this year than is was last year?’ Actually, it is:

Villanova Shot Distribution and FG%

Season % Shots at Rim FG% at the Rim % Shots from 3PT FG% from 3PT eFG%
Season % Shots at Rim FG% at the Rim % Shots from 3PT FG% from 3PT eFG%
2014-15 33.2% 62.2% 42.9% 38.9% 55.3%
2015-16 32.4% 68.9% 42.7% 36.2% 56.1%
2016-17 34.3% 71.7% 43.3% 36.9% 57.5%
2017-18 32.1% 67.9% 47.5% 40.1% 59.5%
2018-19 27.6% 65.2% 53.3% 35.6% 53.7%

Villanova is not only taking significantly more threes than ever before, but also getting to the rim at a shockingly low rate. With the percentage of non-rim 2PT shots remaining steady from last season to this one, the Wildcats have merely swapped rim attempts for 3PT shots.

This shot distribution, which is significantly more extreme than last year’s, cannot be the recipe for success, right? The National Championship team from last season, a team that nearly broke the record for KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency, would disassemble and destroy its opposition from beyond the arc with a roster featuring four NBA players. This iteration of Villanova is not last year’s team, and its shot distribution had to trend back to “normal” for the team to be successful.

In an effort to prove this hypothesis, I explored, game by game, Villanova’s shot distribution hoping to find that the trend was normalizing. Before we go there, can you guess the game in which Villanova took it’s highest proportion of shots at the rim?

That’s correct, against Michigan (??).

A Detour into Hell

The Wildcats took 59.1% of their shots at the rim against Michigan, a staggering 14.4% more than their second highest mark, which came in their drubbing of UConn. How could the ‘Cats have gotten so blown out when taking that many rims attempts, especially when the team shoots 67.0% at the rim?

I went back and watched this game (strongly do not recommend, zero out of five stars), and what becomes painfully apparent early is that Michigan saw no Wildcat as a credible rim scorer, and therefore brought no additional help defenders on drives.

This came early in the first half, as Villanova was mostly running a basic pick and roll offense and trying to space the floor. Joe Cremo makes a few crafty moves and gets into the paint, but Michigan offers absolutely no help. Instead, each off-ball UM defender is sticking to a Villanova jersey on the perimeter. Once he comes to a stop, VU’s grad transfer has nowhere to throw the ball, and ultimately forces up a contested close-range effort.

In the second half, the Wildcats tried other tactics, including using dribble-hand offs and off-ball cuts to move Michigan’s defense around. In the clip above, Paschall starts on a probing drive through the paint. He moves the ball to Collin Gillespie cutting to the rim, but Gillespie has no intention of going up with it. He dishes to Jermaine Samuels, who drives to the paint but gets caught coming to a jump stop with nowhere to go. The possession ends with a long, contested three.

VIllanova did many, many things poorly in this game, but Michigan’s game plan was a huge factor in making this a blowout. It may be hard to believe, but this is exactly the game plan that almost worked for Michigan in the National Championship game. That is, until Donte DiVincenzo reduced it to rubble.

This drive, which came late in the first quarter while the game was close, shows a Michigan look that’s nearly identical to the Cremo drive – UM perimeter players are glued to ‘Nova shooters, and once DiVincenzo gets beyond Abdul-Rahkman, there’s no help defense.

The Wildcats beat Michigan not because Jay Wright masterfully countered John Beilein’s game plan, but because Villanova had superior players who could make plays at the rim when guarded one-on-one. This team, without those quality players, could not handle Beilein’s defense.

It’s Not Crazy If It Works

That detour hurt, but it was important to demonstrate that earlier this season the Wildcats were not driving purposefully or effectively to the rim. The team we saw get killed at home on November 14 needed significant structural changes and their counterparts, the now #5 ranked Wolverines, basically showed future opposition the blueprint for beating that Villanova.

The structural changes I anticipated seeing were a trend towards a healthier shot distribution – less threes, more rim attempts – and more credible rim driving and scoring. What I found regarding shot distribution; however, is that, if anything, things are further polarizing.

Villanova Shot Distribution and FG% by Game Type

Game Type % Shots at Rim FG% at the Rim % Shots from 3PT FG% from 3PT % Shots Non-Rim 2PT
Game Type % Shots at Rim FG% at the Rim % Shots from 3PT FG% from 3PT % Shots Non-Rim 2PT
Non-Conference 29.9% 71.5% 50.6% 34.7% 19.5%
Conference 26.9% 75.3% 52.1% 39.7% 21.0%

When things are going right, it’s clear that Villanova is addicted to the three. During their undefeated conference run, the Wildcats are maxing out the quantity of threes they take at the expense of rim shots. Though, somewhat alarmingly, the non-rim 2PT shots have grown as a proportion of all shots, and shots at the rim have fallen during Big East games, granted over a small sample size.

The growing reliance on the three in Big East games is making “live by the three, die by the three” realer than ever before. The culprits behind the growing shot polarization are three of the Wildcats’ four leaders in shot attempts: Phil Booth, Collin Gillespie, and Joe Cremo. Booth has been sensational from three, and as a result he’s taking 4.2% more compared to non-conference play. Joe Cremo, whose role has been to shoot when open and attack closeouts, has seen his proportion of 3PT attempts grow from 66.7% to 71.4%. Meanwhile, Collin Gillespie, who is relied on to break down opponents in the half-court, is taking 74.5% of his shots from beyond the arc, up significantly from 56.6%.

The shot distribution in conference play is certainly concerning, but the shots that do go up around the rim are falling, and 3PT percentage is up 5.0% as well. This indicates that, first the Wildcats are getting quality looks when they do get to the rim and, second, their ability to suck the defense in and either make shots or kick to shooters is improving. The latter point is somewhat anecdotal, but it does pass the eye test. Over the last several games, led by Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, Villanova seems to be driving with more purpose and getting the defense to collapse to the paint.

The catalyst for the improvement in FG% at the rim in Big East games is Eric Paschall. Villanova’s senior forward is taking roughly the same amount of 2PT shots in Big East play as he did out of conference, but he’s shooting 57.1% from inside the arc, a 7.7% improvement. Beyond Paschall, Phil Booth’s dribble drives remain instrumental for the Wildcats, and he’s shooting 47.2% from 2PT.

Notice how deep Phil Booth sets up to shoot and how hard Tyrique Jones closes out. Booth is getting better penetration into the heart of the defense and dragging defenders further out of the paint as a result of his 46.8% conference 3PT FG%. Booth’s effective driving has had a tangible effect on his passing as well, as the senior guard has averaged two more assists per game in conference play to go along with an impressive 29.0% assist rate.

With the improved shooting across the board, it’s evident that rotation stability and role-refinement has helped Villanova’s players, especially the younger players, find success. Jermaine Samuels has stepped into a manageable role as screen setter and rim diver who is capable of taking open threes. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who played well against Xavier, has spelled Samuels’ value but without the 3PT shot. Saddiq Bey has been a steady presence in the rotation, and the addition of Jahvon Quinerly has added a spark to the team, both in the half-court as a driver and in transition.

By all measures, today’s ‘Cats should be better equipped to deal with stingy man defenses like Michigan’s. Since that horrid performance, Villanova has vastly improved its scoring and efficiency against man looks, and is even sporting a healthier shot distribution. Using KenPom’s defensive footprint to categorize, the Wildcats have a 114.1 offensive rating (ORtg) against “mostly man” defenses, a mark that’s 4.7 points higher than their ORtg against zone and other looks. Villanova is also getting to the rim 30.0% of the time against man-heavy defenses, converting 72.1% of their attempts.

In all, there are still reasons to be concerned. No team had ever been as successful as last year’s Wildcats team shooting as many threes as that team did, and this year’s team is taking more of them with lesser talent. Over-reliance on the three point shot can be dangerous, and Villanova is wading in uncharted territory with their shot mix.

That said, what we’ve seen so far in conference is working. The roles have become more distinct, and players are finding success doing one or two things well on the offensive end. Whether or not this grand experiment works is dependent on what your definition of success is for the WIldcats. What is indisputable is that we’re watching something we’ve never seen before, and that’s scary, but also pretty cool.