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Villanova Basketball Shot Distribution Redux: The Cats Never Stopped Never Stopping

Villanova will live by the three and die by the three in March, and that’s okay with them.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament Final-Villanova vs Seton Hall Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There was once a time where we questioned whether jump shooting teams could win championships, and considered ‘living and dying by the three’ to be beneath ‘great’ teams. That time is over. The future belongs to 3.

The Villanova Wildcats now hold the high mark for largest proportion of shots from three for a team that went on to make the NCAA Tournament. They join a group of only four other teams that took more than half of their shots from from deep, with the 2005-06 West Virginia Mountaineers being the only member of the group to come from a major conference. Times are changing, and Villanova is, for better or worse, the face of it.

Villanova Continues to Push the Envelope

Earlier this season, we explored how the Wildcats’ shot mix was evolving, and wondered whether their reliance on threes would continue and if it would be sustainable. The answer to the former, as we have now seen, is a resounding yes.

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%

When the first piece came out back in late January, Villanova was just getting into the swing of Big East play. The team’s shot mix fluctuated game-by-game, and it was unclear if the 3PT shots would continue to go up at the rate they were. At that time, the Wildcats were taking 51.8% of their shots from three. Going into the tournament, that number has jumped to 53.3%.

Whether or not Villanova chose a sustainable shot distribution to rely on is still up for debate. The Cats average 30.1 3PT attempts per game and are 15-4 in games where they take 30 or more, and 10-5 in games where they take 30 or less. More or less, Villanova’s three point shot attempts do very little to predict future outcomes.

Instead, the leading indicator for the Wildcats this season is the percentage of shots the team takes at the rim. The Wildcats’ record when the team takes fewer than 22.8% of their shots as layups is 6-6. In all other games, the Wildcats were 19-3. When Villanova gets to the rim, good things happen.

Trending in the Right Direction

We may not be able to agree on how many threes is too many yet, but consensus among most (excluding Kobe stans) is that long two pointers are the most inefficient shot, and the fewer the better. Especially in college, where the shooters are not as refined, the best offenses mix in only a small number of two point jumpers and ideally reserve them for their best shooters.

One of the worrying signs for Villanova earlier this season was that non-rim 2PT shots were growing as a proportion of all shots in Big East play. That trend continued for a while longer, but recently the ‘Cats have found a better mix of shots and they’ve done it at a crucial point in the season.

The spread between the blue line and the red line is the proportion of shots Villanova took from jumper range. Five games in a row now the percentage of shots at the rim has been above the trend line, and Villanova has taken only 13.2% of their shots from 2PT range in that time, down significantly from the 19.1% they’ve averaged all season. During this five game stretch of fewer long twos, the Wildcats have gone 4-1 and won a Big East regular season and tournament championship. Not bad.

March and Beyond

Looking ahead to Villanova’s first round match up against Saint Mary’s, the first thing that jumps out is the Gaels’ stingy defense against the three. The team is 9th in the nation in percentage of attempts from three, holding their opposition to just 31.4%. Only Michigan (who would have guessed!?) allows fewer 3PT attempts per game among tournament teams.

Moreover, Saint Mary’s opponents shoot just 31.8% on the threes they get, so not only do the Gaels force you off the line, but they also close out and contest. How Villanova and Jay Wright attack Saint Mary’s will be key, and undoubtedly the staff will be combing through the Michigan tape trying to avoid another tactical meltdown.

Beyond just the tournament, the offensive evolution of program and the direction Coach Wright goes after this season is anyone’s guess. Wright is clearly not afraid of encouraging a shot mix that only recently was thought to be the stuff of teams trying to compensate for size and quality problems, but it’s hard to imagine things getting more extreme. Still, what the Wildcats achieved this season has come in large part from this daring shot mix, and no matter the outcome, the Wildcats have further reiterated that 3 is the future.