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Villanova Will Die — Or Live — By The Three

Jay Wright teams shoot a lot of threes. Since the 2006 NCAA Tournament, when Villanova went to the Elite Eight largely on the strength of Wright’s four-guard lineups, the team has been associated with perimeter offense. So when No. 2-seed Villanova plays No. 3-seed Miami tonight, it’s going to toss bombs. The question, given the team’s season-long shooting slump and its recent hot streak, is how many of them are going to fall.

Some years, Wright’s team is very good from deep — last season’s squad made 38.9 percent of its attempts, the second-most for a Wright-coached Nova team. And others Villanova is just a bunch of chuckers — the 2012 team made 31.5 percent of its threes, and four Wildcats shot under 30 percent. But throughout Wright’s decade and a half on the Main Line, the team has dogmatically stuck with its perceived strength and has consistently ranked among the top half of Division I in 3-point attempt rate, or the percentage of field-goal attempts that are threes.

This year’s team ranked 24th nationally in 3-point attempt rate, the most of any Big East team. Individually, several Wildcats have taken more than 100 threes a piece. In a lot of ways, this was a culminating season for the Wright-era Wildcats. Just one problem: The team wasn’t very accurate.

During non-conference play, 49 percent of the team’s shots were threes, and the Wildcats connected on just 30.9 percent of those attempts. That didn’t get any better during the first month of conference play: 39 percent of Nova’s shots came from deep, and but just 33.5 percent were makes. What helped boost their offensive efficiency ranking, which topped the Big East for all but two weeks of conference play, and why VU could get away with such mediocre shooting and still win 16 games in the conference (and 27 overall) was the squad’s 2-point field goal percentage, which was 55.3 percent throughout league play.

In February, a few more threes began to drop — 36 percent — and when Villanova entered March, the team’s offense consisted almost solely of a perimeter barrage. More than 41 percent of its attempts were from beyond the arc, led by Kris Jenkins, a Draymond Green-in-training who, at 6-foot-6, has the size to match up with opposing 4s but is an offensive nightmare because of how he moves around the perimeter. It was helped also by Ryan Arcidiacono, who’s become more and more consistent throughout his four seasons. From March 1, when Villanova played a home game against DePaul, through its annihilation of Iowa last weekend (1.26 points per possession), the team has converted 44.7 percent of its threes.

Of the 16 remaining teams in the tournament, VU led the first two rounds in both 3-point percentage (48.9 percent) and differential between its perimeter shooting during the regular season and March Madness. Considering each Sweet 16 squad since the 2011 tournament, only four made a bigger leap in perimeter shooting than Villanova’s 13.8 percentage point improvement from the regular season to the first two rounds. The table below shows the Sweet 16 teams since 2011 with the most drastic improvement in 3-point percentage from the regular season to the first two rounds; of those, only five moved on to the Elite Eight. On the one hand, this is evidence that teams tend not to sustain out-of-character starts, which is obvious. On the other, two teams — 2013 Syracuse and 2012 Louisville — went on to the Final Four.

2013 Arizona 37.1% 56.3% +19.2 33.3% 1
2015 North Carolina 35.8 52.9 +17.1 61.5 1
2013 Oregon 33.3 48.5 +15.2 35.7 1
2015 UCLA 36.8 51.7 +14.9 23.1 1
2016 Villanova 35.1 48.9 +13.8
2011 Ohio State 42.3 56.0 +13.7 37.5 1
2014 Iowa State 35.8 48.8 +13.0 37.5 1
2012 Xavier 35.1 48.0 +12.9 20.0 1
2013 Ohio State 35.6 48.5 +12.9 31.6 2
2011 Wisconsin 37.4 50.0 +12.6 24.1 1
2015 Xavier 35.1 47.2 +12.1 17.6 1
2011 San Diego State 34.9 45.5 +10.6 31.8 1
2016 Iowa State 38.6 48.8 10.2
2012 Ohio 34.4 44.1 +9.7 37.5 1
2014 Virginia 36.9 46.4 +9.5 33.3 1
2013 Syracuse 33.5 42.9 +9.4 29.3 3
2012 Baylor 38.3 47.5 +9.2 31.0 2
2012 South Florida 31.6 40.6 +9.0 13.3 1
2011 Marquette 34.9 43.5 +8.6 12.5 1
2013 Miami (FL) 36.2 44.7 +8.5 30.8 1
2013 La Salle 37.7 46.2 +8.5 39.0 2
2012 Louisville 31.8 40.0 +8.2 38.0 3
Sweet 16 teams that ran hot through the opening weekend

Source: Sports Reference

On their face, these results are a good reason to disbelieve the Wildcats’ streaky shooting — but the improvement has been steady and recently fueled by crisp ball movement and superb player spatial recognition just as much as it has by sheer coincidence. That’s good, because Villanova will need more than luck against Miami and potentially Kansas (its probable Elite Eight opponent), which are adept at guarding the perimeter and have skilled close-out and ball-screen defenders.

Matt Giles has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon.