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March Madness: Three-pointers have changed the college game

Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig (24) takes a three-point

Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig (24) takes a three-point shot against Villanova guard Mikal Bridges (25) during the second half of a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Buffalo. Credit: AP / Bill Wippert

Before their first game in the NCAA Tournament last week, Wisconsin players were asked about their height advantage against Virginia Tech. Forward Nigel Hayes was quick to say he wasn’t buying it. He pointed out that Tech had good three-point shooters. “Three,” he said, “is better than two.”

It turned out that Wisconsin won that game, sending the Badgers toward a second victory and a spot in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden Friday night, not by being taller but mostly because Bronson Koenig set a school record with eight three-point baskets.

The three-pointer, now 30 years old in college ball, has turned the game inside out. There is no latter-day Patrick Ewing in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. The low post is not a high priority. The heart of the sport now is outside. Way outside.

“The three is the most efficient shot in basketball,” said Hayes, who rarely shoots from beyond the arc — he beat defending champion Villanova with a two-pointer in the final seconds Saturday — but has studied the strategy and often talks about it with teammate Matt Ferris. They both have seen how a timely three-pointer can energize a crowd and change a game’s flow — as a pivotal corner three by Koenig did toward the end of the win over Villanova.

“It’s kind of similar to the dunk. That’s kind of what separates teams,” Hayes said. “You see it in the NBA, the way they play, they spread the floor and shoot the three. In college it’s coming to be the same.”

Long-range shooting can run hot and cold, which adds an extra layer of unpredictability to the already volatile world of March Madness, which can lead to an unlikely foursome at the Garden this week: Florida, Baylor and South Carolina with Wisconsin.

South Carolina ranked only 225th in the nation in the number of three-pointers taken and 242nd in three-point percentage but it sank 4 of 5 in the second half of its big upset over Duke. The other USC, Southern California, on the other hand, kept shooting and missing from beyond the arc at the end against Baylor Sunday.

“It’s an amazing weapon now and almost all of us really use it,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team was knocked out Saturday by West Virginia, which went 5-for-6 from three-point range in the second half (as Irish sharpshooter VJ Beachem went 1-for-9 overall). “You know, I guess a great example is you have a three-on-two fast break. We were drilled as young players, you’ve got to get a layup. Now guys spot up and fire and there’s not even a second thought.”

We diehard fans of the old American Basketball Association are quick to point out that our favorite league is responsible for the rule that revolutionized the game (the early 1960s American Basketball League pioneered it, but the ABA made it popular). The NBA grudgingly adopted the three-pointer in 1979, followed seven years later by the NCAA.

In its infancy, the three-pointer was an addendum, a seasoning meant to spice things up. It was called a home run because it was rare and different. Teams would attempt it only a handful of times every game. But current college players, having grown up with it, are extremely comfortable with shooting threes and good at making them.

Reggie Miller’s 1986-87 UCLA Bruins were among the more prolific in that first season, averaging 10.5 three-point attempts. Lonzo Ball’s 2016-17 UCLA Bruins average 24.3 tries and no one thinks twice about it.

The three is second nature now, much more so even than it was in 2000 when Jay Wright was coaching Hofstra. The Villanova coach, who won the national title on a three-pointer last April, pointed out that a coach’s worst fear used to be seeing his team allow an easy layup. Now, he said, the typical reaction is, “Thank God it wasn’t a three.”

As a tactic and a fixture, it is not going to wither any time soon. Not by a long shot.

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