CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Roy Williams has often been criticized for his resistance to the changing tides of college basketball that suggest a reliance on 3-point shooting and the scoring efficiency the long ball represents is the future of the game. His skeptics may be forced to reverse course temporarily this weekend at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Ask Williams about the value of playing in a particular building, and his response will be the same every time: buildings don’t win games, players do.
That hasn’t stopped the media from lamenting the NRG effect, a condition that seemingly affects every 3-pointer shooter that plays at this year’s Final Four venue.
The 71,500-seat stadium has a long history of depressing 3-point field goal percentages. Butler shot 18.8 percent from beyond the arc in its 2011 national title game loss to UConn, while Duke, Gonzaga, UCLA and Utah combined to shoot 26.7 percent from three over three games at NRG Stadium in the South Regional last season.
There have been 16 college basketball games played at NRG Stadium since it opened in 2002. The 32 participants have combined to shoot a subpar 32.3 percent from 3-point range. According to noted basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, those results, when compared to those teams’ season-long 3-point percentages, is about two standard deviations off of the expectation. That’s considered statistically significant.
“It appears that it’s only slightly easier to make 3-point shots at NRG Stadium than it is on an aircraft carrier,” Pomeroy wrote in March 2015.
That’s an interesting comparison to make, given that UNC shot 33.3 percent (4-of-12) on the USS Carl Vinson in November 2011. Its opponent, Michigan State, shot 10 percent (2-of-20).
So how does an errant-inducing atmosphere possibly work in UNC’s favor? That’s simple. Villanova, Oklahoma and Syracuse all rely heavily on the 3-point shot. The Tar Heels do not.
The Wildcats, Orange and Sooners all rank in the top-60 nationally in 3-point attempt percentage, a statistic that measures a team’s reliance on the 3-point shot. Syracuse, UNC’s Final Four opponent, takes 42.2 percent of its field goal attempts from beyond the arc (40th nationally).
The Tar Heels take a different approach, working from the inside out in seeking high percentage shots at the rim first and foremost. UNC ranks 337th in 3-point attempt percentage (26.8), according to kenpom.com.
“I think it might possibly give us a slight advantage because we get so many of our points at the basket,” senior guard Marcus Paige said on Tuesday. “It’s easier to make a layup in a different environment than it is a three. Since we get so many of our points around the basket – we get a lot of dunks and easy transition baskets – that should help us. I think we get the fewest amount of points from three of any team remaining.”
The Tar Heels are currently on pace to set a school record for the lowest 3-point field percentage in a season (32.1), although they have improved their long range touch in the NCAA Tournament, shooting 38.2 percent from beyond the arc.
“As a shooter, you just try to get used to the background in shootarounds,” Paige said. “It’s weird, even playing in Duke is different than playing here because it’s a smaller setting. You’ve got to get used to the lighting. In the ballroom at the Bahamas, I don’t think I shot very well, so let’s forget about that one. The only thing that helps you not worry about it is that they have to shoot in the same environment as you. So if it’s going to affect us, it’s probably going to affect them as well. That kind of evens it out.”
Instead of relying on the 3-point shot, Williams prefers to attack the basket, not only to score on higher percentage shots, but also to create foul problems for his opponents. He cited UNC’s win over Providence in the NCAA Tournament’s second round as an example. In that game, the Friars’ two best players, Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, played limited minutes due to fouls.
As far as prepping his players for the vastness of a NFL stadium, the 13th-year head coach draws on Gene Hackman’s advice in his role as Norman Dale.
“I go back to Hoosiers,” Williams said on Monday. “I tell them the court is the same distance, the rim is the same height, the free-throw line is the same distance, so we'll see how it works out when we get there.”