When Brigham Young replaced retiring head coach Dave Rose with former assistant Mark Pope last offseason, there was a sense of continuity. Pope was Rose’s assistant for four years before he moved on to a successful four-year head coaching tenure at Utah Valley, 6 miles down the road. He was familiar with BYU’s culture. But there’s a new attitude in Provo — and with it the honor of having the hottest-shooting team in men’s college basketball.
Entering Thursday’s game against Santa Clara, BYU is shooting 42.3 percent from 3-point range this season,1 best in the nation. Five players have made at least one three per game, and four of them are shooting at a better clip than they did last year. Pope brought transfer Jake Toolson with him from Utah Valley, and Toolson leads BYU with 74 threes (on 159 attempts). The program has been known to produce great shooters — Jimmer Fredette being the most famous — and Rose went to eight NCAA Tournaments in nine years.2 But none of those teams shot from deep as well as this one does.
What makes BYU’s improvement from 3-point range so noteworthy? The rest of the country has been a tick worse. The NCAA moved the 3-point line back 16¾ inches — to the international distance of 22 feet, 1¾ inches — starting this season, and through Wednesday’s games, Division I teams are shooting 33.2 percent from the new distance. Over a full season, that would be the lowest national mark in the history of the 3-point line. BYU’s 42.3 percent is 27.3 percent better than this year’s NCAA-wide average; that performance over the NCAA average would have amounted to 43.8 percent from beyond the shorter arc in 2019 — and just two teams have shot better than that in the 12 seasons since the NCAA last moved the line back, in 2008.
Pope is a self-described analytics junkie, and his team’s offensive strategy is based on shot-selection data. He was receptive to the 3-point line change on the offensive end — not because of any effect on shooters, but because it would create more spacing. The rules committee made the change to support “freedom of movement” and seek a more free-flowing game. The Cougars have adjusted: They’re taking buckets of threes (42.9 percent of shots, their highest rate since at least 1997), and their 2-point field-goal percentage (55.2 percent, 11th in Division I) has benefited as well.
As for his team’s success in making those threes, Pope told me this week, “99 percent of it, as always, is about [having] really talented shooters. But that 1 percent is actually pretty important.” The coaching staff designs the offense with a focus on finding open looks, and the program also uses video analysis to identify inefficiencies in players’ shooting motions. “We’re turning down plays that every other team in America is taking so that we can get to those shots,” Pope said.
There is one part about this BYU team that Pope, as an ardent Synergy Sports user, can’t wrap his head around. “I’ve always preached that the number one most efficient offensive play is the free throw,” he said. “And here we are, turning down potential chances to get there. It goes against the grain of what I’ve preached my whole life.”
He likes to remind big men that even if they shoot 60 percent from the foul line, they’re generating a respectable 1.2 points per possession on two-shot fouls. And yet BYU ranks 348th on Kenpom.com in free-throw rate.3 “We don’t have anybody who’s a ready-made contact finisher at the rim,” Pope said, so he discourages challenged shots in the paint that may result in empty possessions. The product is, again, more open threes.
BYU also lacks size — nobody bigger than Yoeli Childs (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) plays more than 42 percent of minutes — so the Cougars also rank 348th in Division I in offensive rebound percentage. Pope’s team is all-in on finding the most efficient long-range shots, and it’s working. BYU is 21-7 (10-3 in the WCC) and likely to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Bracketmatrix.com projects the Cougars as a No. 7 seed.
The efficient offense generates a few more hundredths of a point per possession over a full season. Pope does not know how it will translate to 40 minutes of NCAA Tournament basketball. But high-volume, high-efficiency shooting is in style in Provo, and the Cougars have the stats to back it up.
“The numbers teach us a lot about what the game is trying to tell us,” Toolson told reporters earlier this month. “Coach says that a lot, and it is true. There are so many different ways they can help you.”