SAN ANTONIO — It used to be considered a gimmick, an experiment and even worse — a shot employed only by risk-taking coaches with teams that were big on dreams, short on talent and unafraid of the low-percentage play.
More than 30 years later, and with plenty of help from Billy Donovan, Steph Curry and Steve Nash, to name a few, the Villanova Wildcats have officially made shooting the 3 a bona fide way to win a championship.
Villanova is making 3s at record-setting levels this season, and with a win over Michigan in Monday’s title game, might lay waste to the last vestiges of the once-sacrosanct notion that nobody could win big by lofting up the long shot without maintaining an inside game.
“When the line came out, I think a lot of coaches were opposed to it,” Donovan said. “They thought it would really hurt the game.”
Not by a long shot.
In their win over Kansas on Saturday, the Wildcats tied the Final Four record for 3-pointers in a game — by halftime — then shattered it in the second half.
They took only four shots from inside the arc over the first 20 minutes.
Their 18 3s against the Jayhawks gave them 454 for the season, breaking an 11-year-old college record and setting themselves up as potentially the most 3-point reliant champion since the line was first drawn in 1986-87.
“Over the last two years, I’ve noticed a dramatic change,” said Brian Katz, the Sacramento State coach who, like so many in his low-major world, tries to play like the big boys even though he doesn’t draw Villanova-style talent. “When you go into a game, teams all say ‘Take away the 3 and make them take tough 2s.’ You don’t worry a whole lot when guys are making tough 2s. But when they’re making 3s, you’re worried about that.”
Only one previous champion made more than 400 3s in a season: The 2001 Duke squad led by Shane Battier and Jay Williams. Since then, no champion has come within 100 of what Villanova has made this season. The only team close: Jay Wright’s 2015-16 squad, which made 347, capped off by Kris Jenkins’ game-winner at the buzzer in the title game.
In some ways, the reliance on 3s is a pure math equation. Whether a team shoots 50 percent on 60 shots from 2, or 33 percent on 60 shots from 3, it results in 60 points either way. If that team shoots 40 percent from 3 — or 45 percent, as was the case Saturday night — it runs away most nights.
With a lineup full of tall, athletic players who can create their shots and drain them, Villanova is recalculating the risk-reward equation of the 3. The Wildcats have won their five tournament games by an average of 17.8 points.
“In my generation, Jay Wright has changed basketball,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said last weekend before losing to Villanova in the Elite Eight. “He’s the one that kind of invented small ball, where your ‘4’ man can shoot 3s. They always have four guys on the floor that shoot.”
When the 3-pointer first appeared, it was more novelty than time-tested strategy.
Rick Pitino was viewed as a revolutionary in 1986-87 when he placed his fate into the hands of Donovan — the undersized guard known as “Billy the Kid.” Billy D shot Providence into the Final Four, taking what was then viewed as a staggering 237 shots from 3 that season. Donovan was one of 20 players across the country who tried at least 200 3s. This season, there were 174 such players and Villanova has three — Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo.
“It’s all based on the analytics, the quality of shots you’re getting,” Donovan said. “If you can take a 3, you’re probably better off taking that than a (low-percentage) 2.”
Where most teams played inside-out in Donovan’s playing days, today’s offenses are designed to have a guard dribble into the middle, which instinctually draws the attention of defenders. Wright says some of the tenets of this offense come from the Golden State Warriors; Curry has led the league in 3s for five straight seasons. Wright also draws from Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, who started this about a decade ago in Phoenix by sending Nash through the middle to create.
When the guard goes inside and defenders sag, the ball gets kicked out, then moved around the arc until it gets to an open shooter.
In the worst-case scenario for defenders, as Kansas coach Bill Self put it after Saturday’s loss, “We got spread out on defense. The game plan went to crap. You get caught in between on defense, and it’s the worst thing you can do.”
Meanwhile, defenses that have the discipline to guard the outside leave themselves vulnerable in the paint. Villanova is shooting 59 percent from 2 this year.
“And when they do get a 2, it’s a strip-naked 2, because the court’s so spread,” Katz said.
On Monday night, Michigan gets one last chance to slow it down.
“I think we have to watch a lot more film and make some decisions,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said.
Even if they’re the right ones, they might not beat Villanova.
And even if they do, they probably won’t reverse this trend.
“It used to be you used the 2 to set up the 3,” Katz said. “Now I think the 3 sets up the 2. It’s completely an outside-in game.”
AP Sports Writer John Marshall in San Antonio and freelancer Les East in New Orleans contributed to this report.
More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org ; https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 and https://www.podcastone.com/ap-sports-special-events