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Is Indiana allergic to corner 3s? An investigation on an unsustainable trend

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Did you know that threes are worth more than long twos?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 24 Indiana at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Depending on the random sampling of Indiana men’s basketball games that you analyze from this season, there’s a chance that Indiana’s opponents have made a similar number of corner 3-pointers as the Hoosiers have attempted. Using publicly available shot charts from ESPN, Crimson Quarry analyzed the role, or the lack thereof, that corner 3-pointers have in Indiana’s offense.

Over the course of the last 25 years, Indiana has fluctuated between embracing the 3 and being 3-point averse in terms of attempts, and the Hoosiers’ success from behind the arc has varied, too. But among Indiana’s last five head coaches, Archie Miller has arguably had the lowest – or at least, the least-modern – combination of 3-point percentage and 3-point attempt percentage (what percent of total attempts are 3s).

Below is a scatter plot of Indiana’s last five head coaches and the averages of the average 3-point percentages and average 3-point attempt percentages for each season of each coach’s tenure. This data comes from kenpom.com, which dates to the 1996-97 season, so Bob Knight’s averages are only based on his last four seasons. Also note that Google Sheets was being stupid and wouldn’t let me place Knight’s label below the horizontal, 30-percent 3-point attempt percentage line, so I’m not taking some sort of stand against him or doing a bit by not including him, I just didn’t have the patience to try to troubleshoot it. OK, glad we settled that.

Note that Knight’s final four seasons and Miller’s first four seasons clearly stand out from the tenures of three coaches who separate them.

Andy Wittry

Corner 3s arguably have more value in the NBA, where the distance is just 22 feet, compared to a 3-point distance of 23 feet and nine inches everywhere else on the floor. It’s kind of like a short porch in right field in baseball, where you get more value for less work, but the value of a corner 3 in the college game isn’t quite as dramatic (22 feet in the corners vs. 22 feet and 1.75 inches everywhere else).

However, in addition to the shorter distance for an extra point per shot attempt, there are certainly other advantages for a team that can capitalize on corner 3s, such as floor spacing and using the entire court on offense. However, under Miller, Indiana rarely attempts corner 3s. Its percentage of shot attempts that are corner 3s and its shooting percentage on corner 3s lag behind that of its opponents.

In the 10 games this season for which ESPN shot chart data is available (out of 25 games total), Indiana has attempted 17 corner 3s based on an analysis by Crimson Quarry, or 1.7 per game. It has made six of them, or 35.3 percent, and just 0.6 made per game in those contests. Those corner 3s, defined as those below the break in the three-point line, represent just 3.1 percent of the team’s total shot attempts in those 10 games.

Meanwhile, Indiana’s opponents made 15-of-36 corner 3-point attempts in those games, or 41.7 percent, and corner 3s made up 6.3 percent of Indiana’s opponents’ total shot attempts in those games. In other words, opponents’ corner 3-point attempt rate (6.3 percent) was roughly double that of Indiana (3.1 percent) in those games, and Indiana’s opponents also made corner 3s at a clip of almost 5.5 percentage points better.

In those games, Indiana’s opponents made 15 corner 3s, compared to Indiana’s 17 corner 3-point attempts.

There are numerous examples of games this season in which Indiana didn’t attempt a single corner 3. In a double-overtime affair against Wisconsin, Indiana didn’t attempt a single corner 3, or really even a single shot from the baseline extended, in 50 minutes of basketball.

ESPN

The only corner three listed below on Indiana’s side of the court was in fact a shot attempt from Ohio State on the opposite basket.

ESPN

The shot chart for Indiana’s 78-71 loss to Michigan State shows the difference that corner 3s can potentially make in a game. It’s overly simplistic and probably unfair to boil the seven-point loss for Indiana down to ~corner 3s~, but Michigan State was 5-for-7.

Indiana was 0-for-1.

Even though the Spartans had little production to show for their shots from the wings or the top of the key, they had tremendous success from the corners – areas of the floor where Indiana generally did not attempt any shots.

ESPN

At the end of the day, Indiana is a team that starts two traditional bigs, one of whom, Trayce Jackson-Davis, is an All-American-level big man who has yet to attempt a 3-pointer in 57 career games. The Hoosiers’ starting point guard, Rob Phinisee, is 24-for-87 (27.6 percent) from deep and his backup, Khristian Lander, is 12-for-43 (27.9 percent) this season. Fellow freshman Trey Galloway, who ranks sixth on the team in terms of percent of available minutes played, is shooting just over 17 percent from deep, and the team’s best 3-point shooter, Armaan Franklin (45 percent on 80 attempts), has missed some time this season.

Indiana is shooting an Archie Miller era-best 33.6 percent from behind the arc this season (which is actually slightly below the national average) and the team is shooting the same percentage in conference play, which actually ranks sixth in the Big Ten. Three-point shooting – in terms of both attempts and makes – has not been a core principle of Miller’s tenure. That in itself is worth examining and asking about the sustainability of such an offense (and potentially, the sustainability of the architects of said offense) in the year 2021. But telling a bad, or even slightly above average 3-point shooting team to shoot more 3s, simply just because, isn’t necessarily some offensive magic elixir, either.

Even if corner 3s have some theoretical value, either implicitly because those shots are worth three (3) points and that’s more than two (2) – please cite Crimson Quarry if you use that advanced math in a conversation at a rooftop bar this summer – and even if corner 3s provide additional spacing for an offense, having bad 3-point shooters take more corner 3s just to check a box isn’t guaranteed to be a viable solution.

But you can’t take none.

The role of Corner 3-Point Shooter is one that Jerome Hunter (35.9 percent on 64 3-point attempts) or Jordan Geronimo (4-for-10 on 3s) could potentially fill in the future, because it’s too late for such an investment or such a conscious role change to pay meaningful dividends this late in the season. While neither player has the athleticism nor the slashing potential of Troy Williams, Williams was often at his best as a baseline cutter, who could be the recipient of alley-oops and backdoor cuts, especially when a play broke down or when the defense fell asleep. He was also a respectable enough 3-point shooter by the end of his career. Indiana might have a spiritual second cousin or two of Williams’ basketball archetype.

Tell a 6-6 or 6-7 forward who can shoot to run the baseline and let him use his instincts to find soft spots in opposing defenses, around the scripted low-post sets for Jackson-Davis, and maybe Indiana’s offense can kiss the ‘90s goodbye and make a fashionably late appearance to the 2020s.

Indiana’s offense doesn’t use the entire floor – seriously, just look at the shot chart from almost any game this season – and that, as much as its woeful free throw shooting, slow tempo and uncertain guard play, is what has led to four consecutive seasons of overall records that dance just above .500 and Big Ten records that have done limbo at, or under, the .500 mark.

Heading into its season finale at Purdue on Saturday – a rival that the Hoosiers haven’t beaten in their last eight tries, a stretch that predates the hiring of Miller – Indiana is one game under .500 and four games below .500 in the Big Ten. After that visit to Mackey Arena, it’ll be a trip to the Big Ten tournament, where Indiana hasn’t won multiple games since 2003. If the bottom falls out, a six-game losing streak to conclude a season that ends with a 12-15 record isn’t out of the question, and then it would be time for the Indiana brass to ask, and answer, the hard questions that it can publicly and temporarily delay answering, if asked in the next week or so.

Corner 3s – both literally and metaphorically, in terms of what they represent about how basketball is played and coached today, and how they relate to what Indiana has been and what it wants to be – should figure prominently in the space that separates the open-ended punctuation mark at the end of the hard questions asked about the program’s present and its future, and the potential finality of the punctuation mark that ends those questions’ answers, which could be even harder to reach than they are to ask.