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College Basketball

When Do You Need A Three In The NCAA Tournament? An Investigation

Drew Peterson of USC scores a three pointer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The last several days of college basketball have, unsurprisingly, seen plenty of teams trying desperately to come back from single-digit deficits with a minute or less remaining on the clock. But what, exactly, is the most effective way to try and do so? Both human instinct and basic arithmetic would suggest that, when losing by three points or more with so little time left, a team should attempt a three-pointer for as big an impact as possible. But college basketball experts around the country spent the weekend emphasizing, in various circumstances, how this strategy is not always necessary.

So when do you need a three in college basketball? To find out, Defector looked at a bunch of close games from the first two rounds of the men’s tournament, then listened to what the experts had to say about the three-ball each time. Here they are, in chronological order:

New Mexico State vs. UConn

In this first-rounder from Thursday, UConn was trying to escape an upset and found themselves losing 63-60 with the clock ticking down under 50 seconds. But, despite trailing by three, did they need to a shoot a three here?

“You don’t need a three right here,” analyst Brendan Haywood said on the broadcast. “You still have enough time to get a two and play defense.”

UConn would not get off a shot of any kind on this possession. They turned the ball over, allowed a layup, and ended up losing 70-63.

Miami vs. USC

On Friday, seventh-seeded USC faced a 65-61 deficit against the Miami Hurricanes, with only 31. 5 seconds left. In this two-possession game, did they need a three?

Not according to Grant Hill. “You don’t need a three in this situation,” he said. “But something quick would be good if you’re USC.”

Ignoring Hill’s advice, USC’s Drew Peterson did in fact make a three in this situation! And after Miami went one-of-two from the stripe, Peterson tied it at 66 with a layup. But a foul and a couple of Miami free throws with three seconds left gave them the victory, 68-66.

North Carolina vs. Baylor

Top-seeded Baylor was going for an all-time comeback against UNC on Saturday, having trailed by 25 in the second half. With 26 seconds to go they got the ball down by just three points. The shot clock is off. You have to go for the three and tie it, right?

Hold your horses there, buddy. As Baylor set up their offense, play-by-play man Brian Anderson made sure to note, “Don’t need a three here but can take it.”

He was kind of correct, actually. James Akinjo got a dramatic old-school three on this play, getting to the line for an and-one that tied the game at 80 before Baylor lost in overtime.

Creighton vs. Kansas

Also on Saturday, Creighton tried to replicate UNC’s performance and take down No. 1 seed Kansas. They were close in the final 49 seconds, holding the ball while down by three points. Time to get behind the arc and … nope.

“You don’t need a three,” color commentator Jim Jackson said. “It’s been your ally—12 for 26 from behind the three-point line. If you get a drive and kick you take it. If not, also look for an easy two like this one inside.”

Creighton would get blocked on a layup on this possession, be forced to foul Kansas, and wouldn’t score for the rest of the game, eventually losing 79-72.

Memphis vs. Gonzaga

Memphis, too, gave Gonzaga quite the scare late Saturday night, but the Zags were solidly in control with 41 seconds to go, as they held a five-point lead. This, now, is the definition of desperation time. Memphis simply had to cut into—wait … by god, that’s Steve Lappas’s music!

“Get a quick deuce here if you can,” Lappas said. “You’re down five. You don’t need a three. You just need a basket.”

Lester Quinones did indeed make the three here for Memphis, but Gonzaga made their free throws when they needed to and escaped with an 82-78 win.

Michigan State vs. Duke

On to Sunday. Michigan State made a valiant effort at ending Coach K’s career, but with under 40 seconds to play they too sat with a five-point deficit and under 40 seconds to play. Still, it’s not time to rev up the outside shooting just yet!

“You gotta go. You don’t need the three,” said an impatient Bill Raftery, as State held the ball and time ticked away.

After Duke tipped a pass out of bounds, Michigan State missed a three, then missed a two following the offensive rebound. Duke made a few more free throws and won 85-76.

Iowa State vs. Wisconsin

Wisconsin was down a full six points with under 40 seconds remaining. PLEASE, Debbie Antonelli, tell me it’s time to let loose!

“You gotta look to attack, if you’re Wisconsin. You do not need the three necessarily. You need to score quickly.”

*Sigh*

Wisconsin, as you can see, missed their three and had to foul. Though they did make one later, with 18 seconds left, they still lost 54-49.

TCU vs. Arizona

Finally, we come to overtime in a fantastic capper to the opening weekend. TCU is down by three points with under a minute to play. But you know the drill.

Lisa Byington asked, “Does it have to be a three? Do you go for a three here?” and Avery Johnson answered, “No, you don’t need a three, you need the best shot. And you can get a traditional, old-fashioned three-point play with a drive to the basket.” Steve Smith echoed these sentiments.

Chuck O’Bannon Jr. attempted a three on this possession and missed. TCU tried to play straight-up defense on the other end but allowed an awesome Christian Koloko put-back dunk to lose 85-80.

IUPUI vs. Oklahoma

Perhaps we can find solace in a close game from the women’s tournament. On Saturday, as Oklahoma tried to squash an upset bid, Acronym U got the ball down by six with 80 seconds to play. Brooke Weisbrod was asked if IUPUI needed a three, and of course … wait … do my ears deceive me??

“I think you do, yeah, unless you get a real quick two. Either one would be good for IUPUI, but I think a three would do them a whole lot of good right now.”

We got one! We got one! Holy shit!

IUPUI’s Anna Mortag did attempt the three, but, uh, she missed. The Jaguars went on to lose 78-72.

The lesson of this investigation: Everyone in the men’s game loves to deny the impulse to shoot a three. But if you find yourself at all in a situation where announcers are discussing whether or not you need a three, you’re probably screwed either way.