The first day of the NCAA tournament is one of the best days in the American sports year. It’s a great time to be a hoops fan, but it’s also a good time to look at shot charts. I know what you’re thinking. When is it not a good time to look at shot charts?! This season, the great folks at ESPN Stats & Info tracked more than 137,000 shots in Division I men’s basketball,1 which allows us to evaluate the general spatial patterns in college scoring.
ESPN manually tracks shot locations for thousands of select NCAA games each season. The sample is robust but by no means comprehensive.
The graphic makes it obvious that NCAA players are shooting more and more 3s and taking fewer midrange shots. It’s a trend mirrored in the NBA, but the gradual decline of the midrange game is even more pronounced in college. Only 22 percent of the shots tracked in the giant ESPN sample came from the midrange, while a whopping 33 percent of attempts came from beyond the arc. So while many NBA observers are questioning the league’s growing obsession with triples, that horse has already left the NCAA barn. NBA players still take more midrange shots than 3s; college guys exhibit the opposite pattern.
Shot selection is one thing; efficiency is another. It will come as little shock to find that college players are less accurate than their NBA counterparts. College players connect on 34 percent of both their midrange shots and their 3-point shots. In the NBA those numbers are 40 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Keep in mind, the NBA’s 3-point line is a little farther out too.
The tournament will see its fair share of bricks, but there are a few exceptions who will be lacing up this week. Here are five of my favorite collegiate shooters to keep your eye on as the madness begins.
Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
This dude started his college career at Kentucky before leaving Lexington for the irresistible allure of Spokane. He’s become the best shooter on arguably the best shooting team in the entire field. With a shot chart like this and a name like Kyle, just call him Baby Korver.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Kaminsky may not be the best shooter in the country, but he’s definitely one of the most important players in this tournament. He’s the NCAA version of Chris Bosh — impossible to guard in the post, with a nice touch from long range. His play enables the Badgers to stretch out opposing defenses.
D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Russell is the only guy on this list who will enter the weekend as an underdog. He’s easily capable of shooting the Buckeyes to a couple of upsets, though. Here’s some advice for Shaka Smart and the VCU guys: Don’t leave Russell open on his right side.
Quinn Cook, Duke
Man, who doesn’t love Duke, right? It’s a program steeped in tradition, class, AND likability. These scrappy underdogs from North Carolina manage to make the tournament every season, in part because they’re able to lure kids like Cook from Washington, D.C., to Tobacco Road. Cook is a senior point guard with a deadly jumper and one of the best corner 3 shots in the tournament.
Devin Booker, Kentucky
Last, but not least, is the best shooter on the best team in the country. There’s a very good chance Booker will be knocking down 3s this weekend, next weekend, and the following weekend. Booker enters the tournament as the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer and their top 3-point threat, hitting more than 40 percent of his 3s this season.