The Indiana Hoosiers played harder and competed better than they had in months. That certainly had a lot to do with their shocking 79-75 overtime win at Michigan State on Saturday evening. Indiana could not and would not have won if it had played with the same softness it displayed in a never-competitive blowout loss at home to Michigan on January 25.
Yet, for all the ways in which Indiana can — and should — be lauded for its toughness, the Hoosiers needed shooting to go with their resolve: A 10-of-20 night from 3-point range was just as essential to IU’s winning effort as the hustle plays and the blocked shots and the drawn charges.
“Make-or-miss league?” No, that’s not quite the point, but it’s hard to escape that point whenever a bad shooting team — 25.3 percent from 3-point range in Big Ten games entering Saturday’s play — suddenly shoots better and, PRESTO, notches a gigantic win to snap a seven-game losing streak.
What IS the point, you ask? It’s something which knits together Indiana and two other teams which, unlike the Hoosiers, lost on Saturday, Texas and North Carolina State.
Look at these programs. They are similar in a number of ways.
First, the background: They all have young coaches who have been viewed to varying degrees as the “it” guy — the hostshot rising star in the profession, the next big thing — in recent years. These coaches are all trying to find their footing, but are struggling. Their fan bases are grumbling or at least uncomfortable with current results. They are all on the bubble — probably the good side of the bubble in all three cases, but the bubble nevertheless. A three-game losing streak would put any of these programs on the bad side of the bubble. They have a lot of work to do… and none of these fan bases are satisfied with bubble-level seasons.
Moreover, they shouldn’t be.
As for the precise nature of these teams on the court in the 2018-2019 season, you can see that their Achilles heel is the same: perimeter shooting. It is fascinating that on the same day Indiana surprisingly busted out from 3-point land, North Carolina State endured a historically awful game, the lowest single-team ACC point total (24) of the shot-clock era, which dates back to November of 1985. The Wolfpack were 2 of 28 from 3-point range, as cold as the polar vortex — or Georgia Tech any night of the week.
It’s HARD to shoot that poorly.
Meanwhile, Texas turned in a relatively normal day at the office from 3-point distance, making just 6 of 23 triples in a 65-60 loss to Iowa State. Texas has been playing rock fight-style games in the high 50s or low 60s for much of the season, and rarely escapes the pattern. Texas shoots 33 percent from long distance, but what’s more notable than the percentage is that the Longhorns follow what the analytics say teams should do in modern basketball: They SHOOT plenty of threes — they are 61st in Division I out of 351 teams. They are not bashful about launching. They just can’t make long shots: The Longhorns are 229th in the country.
When a team can’t hit triples, it needs to be able to get to the foul line in order to accumulate points more reliably. Texas is 269th in free throw attempts. The Horns are 180th — average — in free throw shooting percentage at 70.1 percent.
This team’s 2-point shooting percentage: 51.2, or 176th in the nation.
A coach’s job is to put players in the best position to make shots. In modern hoops, that means putting players in position to make 3-point shots as well as free throws. Shaka Smart obviously has to develop players better, but there is only so much a coach can do when guys don’t make shots.
Archie Miller at IU and Kevin Keatts at North Carolina State know the feeling.
One detail which is worth noting: Players should not be allowed to shoot their teams out of games. When Braxton Beverly of N.C. State goes 0 for his first 10 as he did on Saturday against Virginia Tech, that is — to a certain degree — a failure on the part of a coach.
You have played pickup basketball before. You know that if you miss five or six straight 3-point shots, you need to either defer to a teammate or try to get free throws or a layup. Beverly shot N.C. State into trouble, and Keatts deserves some criticism for allowing Beverly to rack up that many missed shots.
Yet, even then, Beverly is not going to shoot that poorly in every game, and of course, coaches have to allow their players to make mistakes to a certain degree. Coaches coach and players play. Scoring only 24 points in a game is not an indictment of a coach’s system. It does bring up the point that Keatts’ system might be too dependent on the long ball, but no system is that bad. This was a players’ loss more than a coaching-based loss. Keatts didn’t tell his guys to make seven percent of their 3-pointers on 28 attempts.
Keatts deserves some criticism for Beverly’s seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth misses in his 0-for-10 start, but Beverly has to own the first six.
N.C. State scoring only 24 points — just three in a 15-minute segment of this game against Virginia Tech — won’t happen again anytime soon. It is an extreme example. Yet, it neatly illustrates the point that coaches don’t look good when players don’t make shots. Even though coaches are paid to get better shots for their players and to put them in position to earn free throws, what if the players just can’t get to the line that much?
You read earlier in this piece that Texas is 269th in free throw attempts. N.C. State is 221st and makes just 70.4 percent of its foul shots (166th). Indiana is 159th in free throw attempts… and the Hoosiers hit only 65.3 percent of their foul shots, 320th in the nation.
Indiana. Texas. North Carolina State. Three promising coaches who are currently running into headaches and problems are all dogged by the fact that their teams are inconsistent in the two areas — threes and foul shots — where modern college basketball analytics say that teams need to be productive.
Coaches are paid to deal with these problems… but when the shooting woes of teams are as pronounced as they have been in Bloomington, Austin and Raleigh, there is only so much a coach can do.
Recruit guys who can dunk in 16 points per night and hit 80 percent of free throws for their other points? That would be great… but that’s a fantasy.
We will see if Archie, Shaka, and Mr. Keatts can figure out how to address the reality that their teams just can’t shoot well on a prolonged basis.
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