RICHMOND, Va. – I have to confess, “You live by the three, you die by the three,” might be my most-hated sports cliché. What does that even mean? Will excessive long-range shooting spark the ire of wild dogs? Will the hoisting of triples unleash marauding Vikings?
I get it. If a team forgets about the inside game and focuses too heavily on “low percentage” shots, it’ll be in trouble when a shooting slump takes hold. I suppose that’s correct, that balance is best. But – and this is the 12-year-old pretending to be Mark Price version of myself talking – isn’t this way more fun?
VCU’s five-game blitz to the NCAA Final Four has been fueled, in part, by impressive 3-point shooting. The Rams have hit 44 percent (53-of-121) from long range in the tournament. In wins over Georgetown, Florida State and Kansas, VCU knocked down 12 3-pointers. The Rams’ previous season-best had been 11, reached 10 times. Against top-seeded Kansas, the Rams hit 9-of-11 3-pointers in the first half and built an 18-point cushion on the way to a 71-61 victory.
That’s not to say that VCU hasn’t been productive in other areas. In the tournament, the opposition is shooting 39 percent from the field, including 23 percent from 3-point range. The Rams also hold a plus-4.0 turnover margin, so defense has been a big part of the equation. But on offense, the talk has been all about the three.
During the NCAA Tournament, the Rams are averaging nearly two 3-pointers more a game (10.6 to 8.5) than they did during the regular season. Prior to the start of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, VCU was shooting 36 percent from long range, but has hit 42 percent (77-of-183) in the eight games since.
So, what has been the catalyst of this 3-point barrage? The Rams say, it’s been business as usual.
“I have no idea what we’re doing to make all those shots,” Rozzell said. “It’s crazy because one of the Kansas players mentioned it to me at the free throw line, ‘you guys can’t miss threes’. We just shoot them. If it’s an open look, we take it.”
While other teams are more selective in their 3-point shooting, VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart is comfortable with his players pulling the trigger when they’re open. Although he wants his team to work hard for open shots and run the offense effectively, Smart believes that having confidence in his shooters goes a long, long way.
“A lot of coaches like to put restrictions on when guys can shoot, who can shoot, where they shoot,” Smart said. “I try not to do that very much. I’m not going to say I never do it, but a guy like Brandon Rozzell, if you start putting restrictions on him, then he’s not going to go nutty like he did in the first half against Kansas, and that broke the game open.”
There are times when Smart’s approach to long-range shooting won’t be pretty. One such instance came late in VCU’s victory over Kansas when Joey Rodriguez air-balled a long 3-point attempt, but Smart didn’t waver in his support. A short time later, Rodriguez hit a similar attempt to give the Rams an eight-point lead with less than five minutes remaining.
“Joey Rodriguez, he’s a free-flowing player. If he comes off a ball screen and they go underneath and he’s 25-feet from the hoop and he’s wide open, I’m yelling, ‘shoot it,’” Smart said. “Our guys know I have the belief in them.”
Nobody has benefited more from that approach or been hotter from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament than Rozzell, who is shooting 49 percent (17-of-35) in those five games. Rozzell drained four first-half treys against Kansas. In VCU’s 18-point blowout of Georgetown, Rozzell was 6-of-10 from long distance.
“It’s great for any shooter, just to know that your coach has no limits on you,” Rozzell said. “You could miss the first three, but he still wants you to shoot the next one. He tells us to put the last shot behind us, so that’s what we do.”
Often times, the Rams can field a lineup in which all five players are threats from 3-point range. It’s difficult to slow an offense like that when it’s clicking because any daylight, especially when the opposition helps on defense, can result in three points for the Rams.
Senior Jamie Skeen fits well into that philosophy. A 6-8 forward, Skeen has hit 8-of-16 from beyond the arc in the NCAA Tournament. Against Kansas he nailed 4-of-7 from 3-point range, which helped offset the Jayhawks’ advantage in the paint.
Early in the season, Skeen struggled from the outside and it was suggested that Smart reign in the senior forward. However, Smart continued to believe that Skeen would find his range.
“It just gives us unbelievable confidence,” said Skeen, who has hit 40 percent (33-of-82) 3-pointers this season. “If you’ve got a coach that doesn’t get mad when you take shots, and sometimes we take ill-advised shots, like Brandon Rozzell, myself, Joey Rodriguez, we take crazy shots sometimes, but he doesn’t get mad because he knows that we can hit those shots.”
And hit those shots the Rams have, all the way to the Final Four. Surely, a team can “die by the three” when they’re not falling, but right now, VCU is living large.