- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: This is part of a four-day, seven-piece series on college basketball's biggest change agents in the past 20 years and what the future will bring.
T.J. Sorrentine's deep 3-pointer to clinch Vermont's shocking NCAA Tournament upset over Syracuse last March was akin to a game-winning home run in a playoff game.
When the shot ripped through the net, the crowd inside the DCU Center in Worcester rose in unison, the roar reverberating off the ceiling and against the back walls. There still was a minute left in overtime, but the game, essentially, was over right then.
Would the moment have meant as much, would it have seemed as exhilarating, if the near 30-footer was only worth two points? Would Sorrentine ever have taken that shot?
Since the NCAA rules committee adopted the 3-pointer beginning with the 1986-87 season -- to "open up the game, force teams to play more defense away from the basket and assist in the problem of rough low-post play" -- the 3 has become the game's great equalizer.
Vermont was able to hang with Syracuse because of it. West Virginia made 42 3s in its run to the Elite Eight. What would have happened to the Mountaineers if there were no 3-point shot?
"We wouldn't have been around very long,'' West Virginia coach John Beilein said. "Can you imagine how low the scores would be without the 3-point shot? Defense has gotten so much better.''
We're about to enter the 20th season with college basketball's 3-pointer, and its impact on the game and the development of its players likely never has been greater. Here's a look back at how the shot has affected various people throughout its history.
An original shooter: Steve Alford
The 3-point shot was adopted for Alford's senior season, one in which he helped lead Indiana to the national title. In his only season with the 3-pointer, Alford shot 53 percent from behind the arc (still the third-best season percentage in Indiana history), making 107 of 202 shots.
"Everyone was so enamored with it,'' said Alford, now the head coach at Iowa. "Players were just going crazy over it.''
"Getting adjusted to the lines was one of the biggest adjustments I had in my career. When I played there was so much more of a premium on points in the paint. We probably had the most deep 2s. Back when I played, if you won the points in the paint you won nine out of 10 times.''
But Alford, unlike today's players, didn't have much time to get used to the shot. Sure, he was hot in his one season in college, but the 19-foot, 9-inch shot didn't prepare him for extending to the NBA 3-point line (as far away as 23 feet, 9 inches).
"It was a huge adjustment,'' Alford said. "The next year [in the NBA], it felt like a heave because I had never shot the ball from 24 feet.''
In four NBA seasons, Alford shot 32.4 percent (35-of-108) from 3-point range.
"It was odd back then, because my whole basketball career I was used to looking at the basketball floor the same way,'' Alford said. "The 3-point line was odd for us, and as a shooter it became a magnet to go where the arc was, because it was so new.''
The 3-pointer as strategy: Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino's mid-'80s Providence teams weren't very athletic. They weren't going to out-bang a team, either, so when the 3-point shot was introduced, Pitino was convinced he could use it to his advantage.
"We had an extremely mediocre team athletically and physically, so this was a gimmick for us to catch people,'' Pitino said.
Providence reached the '87 Final Four -- the first year of the shot's existence and the Friars' last appearance in the sport's major event. The Friars led the nation with 8.2 3s per game, making 280-of-665 in 34 contests.
And it all started in an exhibition against the Russians, according to Pitino.
"I was hoping to take about 15 a game, but then the Russians, in an exhibition, took about 25 [actually 7-of-30],'' said Pitino, whose Friars were 7-of-18 on Nov. 9, 1986 (PC won 91-88). "And then my whole philosophy changed.''
He wasn't alone. At tiny Le Moyne College (N.Y.) and Pfeiffer College (N.C.), coaches Beilein and Bobby Lutz (now at Charlotte) were quickly adapting to the 3-point change.
"I think we had several kids shoot around 50 percent, since we were recruiting all shooters back then,'' Beilein said. "We had a great team that year.''
"I had a lot of guards and one undersized post, so we started using it immediately,'' Lutz said. "It was so hard to get big guys, so we started running four out and one in and using the floor that way.''
Lutz took that philosophy to Charlotte.
"Getting the big guy is such a hard thing to do, so using the shot has allowed us to not get beat up in a power game,'' Lutz said. "The shot makes the big guys face our guys up [outside].''
Big men who love the 3: Kevin Pittsnogle
"You've been Pittsnogled!" became part of the NCAA vernacular last March. That meant West Virginia's Kevin Pittsnogle, all 6 feet, 11 inches of him, had rained another 3-pointer down on some helpless opponent.
When you first see Pittsnogle, you immediately think center, not 3-point shooter, but Pittsnogle is a product of today's love affair with the shot, especially for big men.
"I'd be totally different without the shot,'' said Pittsnogle, whose 3-point makes have gone up every season -- from 49 to 53 to 60.
"Growing up that's all I did,'' Pittsnogle said. "If we didn't have the 3-point shot, I would have probably taken deep 2s.''
Pitino said players like Pittsnogle, the big man who exclusively wants to be a 3-point shooter, still are the exception, not the norm. Beilein said Pittsnogle isn't giving himself enough credit as a legitimate big man. This season, Pittsnogle will have to play more inside; he'll have to do that anyway if he wants to play in the NBA.
"I didn't work inside until I got to college,'' Pittsnogle said. "Being big and tall makes the defense come out to me. It helps guards penetrate and dish back out to create openings. Big guys are stepping out more and more to make the 3-point shot. That's what makes European players so versatile.''
The foreign player who adapted: Daniel Kickert
Kickert came to St. Mary's from Australia, a big man who did play in the post in his native land. But the Gaels needed the 6-10 Kickert to be more versatile; he simply was too frail to be a post player in the U.S.
"He had a nice stroke but he didn't look to shoot it,'' Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said of Kickert. "We encouraged him to try it, and he doesn't miss many 3-point shots. Not too many fives will go out there and cover him, so this stretched his game.''
Bennett said Kickert is a good all-around scorer, but the 3-pointer is an easier shot for him to get off on a regular basis.
"I'd be lost on the floor without [the 3-point line] -- I wouldn't know where I should stand,'' said Kickert. "This has been huge for my game. In Australia, I was always bigger than everyone else, and I focused on the inside game. Coach had faith in me and just kept pushing me to keep shooting, and once I realized I could hit a few, it spread my game out a lot more.''
Kickert's 3-pointers made have gone up each season from 21 to 32 to 66 with his attempts climbing from 47 to 82 to 140.
The new-school guard: J.J. Redick
Duke's J.J. Redick enters the season as the nation's most feared 3-point threat. Duke's offense is perfect for Redick to be on the receiving end of drive-and-kick passes for 3s that can devastate an opponent.
When Redick makes 3s at home, the Cameron Crazies seem to eat up the opposition. He made 40.3 percent last season, and his number of takes continues to climb, as well. He was 121-of-300 last season, after going 90-of-228 as a freshman and 102-of-258 as a sophomore.
"Growing up, most kids want to be outside shooting 3s,'' said the 6-4 Redick. "I would have developed differently without it. I would have probably spent more time working on my ballhandling skills, trying to be a point guard or something.''
Redick's game has changed, though. He has been able to get his shot off on his own at times and has increased his mid-range game. He has essentially become more versatile.
"If it were taken away, my points-per-game production would go down but I would still be an effective player,'' Redick said. "If the shot were worth only two points, then teams would probably pack it in more. If you have a great shooter, then it can stretch the defense.''
Should the distance change?
The rules committee has, for years, wrestled with the distance. Still, it hasn't moved.
"If you said to me in 1987 that it would be the same distance 19 years later, I said you'd be crazy,'' Pitino said. "I'm shocked the coaches keep it where it's at. Their adage is, if it's not broken then leave it alone. Well, if it's not broken, then break it and make the game better.''
Pitino wants to see the 3-point line at the international distance of 20-feet, 6¼ inches.
"I'm shocked we haven't changed it, either,'' said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, echoing Pitino's comments. "I'm not a big fan of the 3-point shot. It's way too close and we're shooting too many of them. Moving it back [would] help a bit and cut back on how many 3s are being taken.''
Boeheim wants to see the lane widened, too, but that's for another story. This one is about the 3-point shot and its effect. Nineteen years later, the shot continues to change the way the game is played and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
"It's not perfect, but it has motivated above-average shooters to become better shooters and challenged other guys to develop their game,'' Lutz said. "It has helped the spacing in the game and makes teams go out and guard you. Overall, it has enhanced the game.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
In 20 years, the 3-pointer has become the great equalizer -- and now almost everyone's shooting it.