Syracuse trailed Virginia with 55 seconds left in the first half of its Elite Eight matchup with the No. 1 seed. After the Cavaliers converted a dunk to go up 11 points, Syracuse could have taken its time to try to take a good shot and cut UVA’s halftime lead to single digits. Instead, Michael Gbinije raced down court and fired up a 3-pointer. Nothing but iron. The miss caromed into the hands of UVA’s London Perrantes, who took a three of his own and made it, extending Virginia’s lead to 14 points. The Orange’s run through the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed appeared to be roughly 20 minutes from ending.
Gbinije’s tear down the court and his miss were eventually overshadowed by Syracuse’s thrilling second-half comeback — the Orange erased a double-digit deficit with a ruthless full-court press — but shots like that one, imperious threes thrown up in transition, have mattered quite a bit to the Orange this season. And now, on the eve of showing down with North Carolina, the tournament’s strongest remaining team, the Orange hope to ride those quick-trigger threes to a potential title game appearance and set a record for the worst-seeded team to ever play for a national championship.
College ball has been gravitating toward the three for years. Three of the squads playing in Houston this weekend have shot more than 40 percent of their overall field-goal attempts from deep. (North Carolina is the lone holdout, powered by a 2-point-heavy attack and Roy Williams’s folksy cussin’.) Syracuse ranks 40th nationally, with a 42.2 percent 3-point attempt rate — impressive, but not something liable to knock anyone’s socks off.
According to data from Jeff Haley at Hoop-Math.com, 48 percent of the Orange’s transition attempts in 2016 have originated from beyond the arc, an increase from 34.5 percent last season (and 30.6 percent in 2012). That is an outlandish number, even for the only ACC team with a pair of players ranked in the top five of long-range attempts. Think about that: Just about half of all Syracuse’s fast breaks are threes! Specifically, Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson have taken nearly three times as many fast-break shots from beyond the arc than at the rim. Syracuse’s rate of transition threes has dipped slightly during the NCAA Tournament — 42 percent — but that’s to be expected after playing Virginia, a team known for preventing quick leakouts and unguarded transition looks.
This all falls into a spike for transition threes in college ball this season. According to Haley’s data, 36.1 percent of DI squads’ three-point attempts this season came in transition, compared with 34.4 percent in 2015 (and 33.9 percent just three seasons ago). For years, basketball doctrine demanded that teams out on the break attack the rim. Why take a jump shot when a squad could get that same shot through a typical half-court possession? But the rise of the 3-pointer has turned around a lot of the old thinking. Syracuse is a good example of how a team with no great options on offense can get decent looks by breaking the rules.
Only about a quarter of the Orange’s total 3-point attempts come in transition; the others come off of half-court screen-and-kicks and passes off of dribble-drives. (Syracuse makes 36.1 percent of its threes overall and 33.7 percent on the break.) But because only three players have shown the ability to create offense for themselves,1 the Orange need to exploit any advantage they have. There aren’t many. The squad’s half-court effective field goal percentage, per Hoop-Math.com, is last among the Final Four teams (49.5 percent; among the tournament field, the Orange ranks 16th-lowest), and although Richardson and Gbinije have the athleticism and dexterity to score off the bounce, and Tyler Roberson scores 1.13 points per offensive board (per Synergy Sports), those open threes in transition are still just about the Orange’s best option, even if they’re only hitting them at about break-even.
The other Final Four participants aren’t throwing up transition threes quite as often as Syracuse, but they’re doing it more than usual. Villanova is at 40.9 percent, and North Carolina is at 27.4 percent. Oklahoma not only attempts 38.0 percent of its transition shots from deep, but the Sooners convert 42.6 percent of those looks, the highest rate of any Final Four squad and one reason that OU’s offense is so difficult to contain. Even if a defense quickly sets, the Sooners run a handful of secondary fast-break sets designed to free Buddy Hield, Jordan Woodard or Isaiah Cousins for a three.
The Orange aren’t a quick team — Syracuse used just (an adjusted) 65.7 possessions per game this season, which ranked among DI’s bottom third — so those long-range shots are effectively game-changers, shifting the momentum in the Orange’s favor. And that’s why the Orange continue to dance even though they aren’t, objectively, a very good team, even though the NCAA selection committee was ridiculed when the ACC squad was granted an at-large bid. Those transition threes have become an integral factor of the team’s offensive profile. Syracuse has converted just 25 percent of those shots during the tournament, so the accuracy hasn’t been as on point as it was throughout the rest of the season, but why stop shooting open-court threes when those attempts have gotten Jim Boeheim to his first Final Four since 2013?
So although North Carolina has beaten the Orange in both regular-season meetings this season, the field has learned that it is unwise to doubt Syracuse’s transition game. Those threes could become the difference between a title game appearance or an early exit.