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No, basketball fundamentals were not better back in your day

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With the Final Four set to tip off on Saturday, college hoops has almost certainly never been better.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-South Carolina vs Marquette
Marquette’s Markus Wheaton hit 55 percent of his 150 3-point attempts this season. He is a freshman. And he is not alone at being awesome from distance.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one thing old people love, it’s to tell people how much better things were back in their day. College basketball, of course, is not immune.

I was listening last week to an interview between Seattle radio host Mitch Levy and college hoops broadcaster/ambassador/philanthropist Dick Vitale, in which they were discussing whether new Washington coach Mike Hopkins would be bringing Syracuse’s famed matchup zone with him to Montlake.

The consensus between the two of them is “why wouldn’t you??”, but not because the zone has been so largely effective for Jim Boeheim over the years; the real reason was the decline in fundamentals in college basketball, with a zone being a great way to take advantage of today’s players, whom they believe would rather put together an And1 mixtape than spend the time necessary to hone their shots. (Paraphrased.)

This is a pretty popular (and not particularly new) refrain — this idea that sports were “better” in some longed-for past.* This is particularly true of college basketball, where an older generation of fans watched players develop for years, and the best teams were laden not only with talent, but with experienced talent. That obviously stands in stark contrast with today’s college hoops landscape, where most of the best teams contain a plethora of talented players with no plans to stay on campus for much more than a semester, causing much debate and consternation pretty much everywhere except for Lexington, Kentucky.

*This obviously is not limited to sports.

If players are only on campus for about five minutes, and their role models are NBA players whose environment very much places a premium on individual skills, of course the fundamentals of college basketball players (and by extension their teams) are going to erode. Right?

As someone who thinks the college game is actually pretty great, I considered for a minute how we might try and investigate “fundamentals” in basketball. I settled on looking at trends in three areas:

  1. Three-point percentage. Accuracy in shooting from the farthest distance on the floor should be a reflection of shooting fundamentals/commitment to craft, I would think.
  2. Turnover percentage. There’s nothing more fundamental than taking care of the basketball.
  3. Free throw percentage. The ultimate measure of how bad you want it, right? All you have to do is stand at the line and practice!

If fundamentals are bad, shooting should be worse than ever, particularly from the farthest distance on the court; turnovers should be plentiful; and players should be bricking their free throws left and right.

Let’s check some data! I went back as far as I could for comprehensive data across all of Division I, which is only 1992-93. (Note: This table is going to make a lot more sense on your desktop device. If you’re on mobile, you might just want to scroll ahead to the pretty graphs.)

FUNDAMENTALS

Year 3PA/FGA 3P% FT% TO%
Year 3PA/FGA 3P% FT% TO%
1993 25.3 35.5 67.8 N/A
1994 27.2 34.6 67.1 N/A
1995 28.8 34.7 67.7 N/A
1996 29.3 34.3 67.4 N/A
1997 29.8 34.0 67.4 N/A
1998 30.0 34.5 67.5 N/A
1999 30.5 34.2 67.8 N/A
2000 30.9 34.5 68.2 N/A
2001 31.2 34.6 68.6 N/A
2002 32.1 34.5 69.0 21.5
2003 32.1 34.7 69.5 21.5
2004 32.7 34.4 68.8 21.4
2005 33.0 34.6 68.7 21.3
2006 33.2 34.8 69.2 21.3
2007 34.2 34.9 69.1 21.2
LINE MOVED BACK TO 20 FT, 9 IN
2008 34.5 35.1 69.1 21.0
2009 33.1 34.2 68.9 20.4
2010 32.6 34.2 68.9 20.4
2011 32.9 34.4 69.3 20.1
2012 32.9 34.3 69.2 20.2
2013 33.0 33.9 69.4 20.0
FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT RULES IMPLEMENTED
2014 32.9 34.5 69.9 18.3
2015 34.2 34.3 69.3 19.1
THIRTY SECOND SHOT CLOCK IMPLEMENTED
FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT RULES RE-EMPHASIZED
2016 35.4 34.7 70.0 18.1
2017 36.4 35.0 70.4 18.5
3PA/FGA: Percentage of all field goal attempts that were 3-point attempts. 3P%: Percentage of made 3-point attempts. FT%: Percentage of made free throw attempts. TO%: Percentage of possessions ending with a turnover. Note: Turnover data not available prior to 2001-2002. Data from kenpom.com and Sports Reference.

And, visually:

Data from Kenpom.com and Sports Reference
Data from Kenpom.com and Sports Reference
Data from Kenpom.com and Sports Reference

Well that sure is weird. If we’re to believe the data, players are shooting more frequently than ever from 3-point range, making those shots at as high a rate as at any time in the last 25 years, from the farthest distance ever, while turning the ball over at the lowest rates on record. Oh, and they’re also making more freebies than at any time on record.

Pretty tough to spin that into a “lack of fundamentals.”

One of the funny things I discovered while looking into this was the impact of moving the line back in 2008. The number of 3s was going up, and there was a perception that it was hurting the game (despite the fact that shooting percentages from out there were continuing to rise).

"Too many players think they can hit that shot and it was hurting shot selection," then Texas A&M-now-Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said at the time. "It was getting to where all five guys were shooting it. Now (the 3-point shot) will go back to being more of a specialty role."

Anecdotally, I remember agreeing with Turgeon back then, as there seemed to be a fair number of players jacking up 3s who really had no business taking that shot. And in the short term, the rule change did accomplish exactly what it was supposed to: The ratio of 3s dropped immediately and stayed right around 1-in-3 for about six seasons. And, interestingly, the rate of makes stayed relatively static, too.

But then something happened a couple of seasons ago. Players started shooting more 3s again, up to this season’s high of 36.4 percent of all field goal attempts. And after initially sticking around that 34 percent mark, the percentage of makes climbed, too — back to basically where it was when the shot was a foot shorter.

Why the uptick? Tough to say. Maybe players just adjusted, as Dave Rose predicted back in 2008.

"Players are good enough that they will adjust," Rose said. "The purpose was to open up the space on the floor. But I don't think a foot will make that much of a difference. Players will figure it out."

Or, perhaps it’s the increasing influence of analytics on the game, in which the incredible value of the 3-point shot is only now being properly recognized and weaponized by coaches and players who wish to follow in the footsteps of the Golden State Warriors.

But here’s the thing: Even a coach who fully recognizes that a 3-point shot is worth 50 percent more than a 2-point shot and therefore a pretty damn good shot under the right circumstances isn’t going to throw five brick layers out on the court and tell them to jack as many 3s as possible.

Maybe — now, hear me out on this — maybe the players are actually just more skilled now than they ever have been!

I tried to think of how a naysayer might try to rebut this. Perhaps they’d try to argue that coaches are simply getting their better shooters to shoot more shots. That might be true; I certainly don’t have the motivation to dive that deep into the data. But that counterargument still doesn’t address the positive changes in turnover and free throw percentage, which certainly are impacted by all five players on the floor.

I can also imagine curmudgeons trying to argue that these stats are skewed by the more “fundamental” players in lower leagues that make up the vast majority of Division I — that it’s the players we see on TV that give us an erroneous perception, that those guys more interested in recklessly running and gunning and jumping and dunking than they are in shooting a good shot or taking care of the ball.

That strains credulity for me on its face — unless you think the best programs aren’t interested in recruiting the best shooters and ball handlers, which would seem to me to be a pretty bad idea. But if you think that might be true, here you go (data, again, from the indispensable kenpom.com):

  • The ACC (37.2 percent), Pac-12 (36.7), Big 12 (36.4), Big Ten (35.8) and Big East (35.6) each shot — as a conference — above the national average on 3-pointers.
  • The ACC (17.2), Pac-12 (17.2), Big Ten (17.9), Big East (18.3) and SEC (18.4) each collectively turned the ball over at a lower rate than the national average.
  • The Big 12 (72.5), ACC (72.2), Big East (71.9) and SEC (70.6) each collectively made their free throws at a higher rate than the national average.

One thing that has changed? There’s objective evidence to suggest that college basketball is less of a “team game” than it used to be. And maybe this is part of where Team Old is coming from.

I’m not going to take the time to put together another huge table, but I can tell you that the ratio of baskets that ends with an assist has dropped in the last 15 years — it was around 55 percent up until 2008, then it started declining, down to a low of 51.8 percent in 2014 before settling in at 52.4 percent each of the last two seasons.

The precipitous drop in assists the last four years coincides with the implementation of the “freedom of movement” rules, which isn’t surprising; if you’re not allowing defenders to put their hands on ball handlers, there will be more unimpeded drives to the basket that don’t necessitate a pass. (This same logic also applies to the big drop in turnovers the last four years, as players are now less likely to be physically pressured into giving the ball away. But they were already trending down before that.)

Maybe this isn’t the way Person Who Longs For Yesteryear wants the college game to be played, with more dribble drives and more 3s. And if that’s your stylistic preference, I can understand that. And if Person Who Longs For Yesteryear also wanted to make the argument that the data doesn’t go far enough back to state conclusively that players are better than ever, I guess she or he could make that case.

However, it’s awfully hard to make a genuine the case that PLAYERS THESE DAYS are lacking in fundamentals and dedication to their craft. And — at the very least — one has to acknowledge that we’re currently watching the most collectively skilled college basketball players in a generation.