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Live by the three, die by the three?

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NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Three point shooting has been a persistent theme in recent years when fans discuss Kansas basketball. For a long time, there was criticism that Self’s squads weren’t taking advantage of their shooting ability, as Kansas consistently ranked in the bottom half, and even bottom quarter of D1 basketball in the percentage of their field goal attempts that came from behind the three point arc.

Those concerns are a thing of the past now, with this year’s team taking 42% of their shots from deep, ranking 72nd in the country. They rank 1st in the Big 12 with 44% of their shots coming from behind the arc in conference play.

Of course, by nature, fans can’t be happy. At least, not when the team loses. Now that too few threes is no longer a valid criticism, I’ve noticed a drastic increase in how often I hear the words “live by the three, die by the three.” It’s replaced “fool’s gold” as the phrase of choice where shooting from distance is concerned.

The phrase has existed for years, but is there truth to it? Specifically, can three point shooting be blamed for some of this year’s woes? I wanted to find out more, so I charted KU’s 3 point shooting for each game, along with the outcome.

I won’t bury the lede. Kansas does a lot better when their threes are falling. It should be noted that this will be true for any team, though. Making more shots, especially those worth more points, is generally going to result in better outcomes. Still, the difference is pretty stark.

While this is admittedly an arbitrary cutoff, in every game Kansas has lost, the Jayhawks have shot worse than 37% from three. They’re 9-6 in these games, which represent just over half the games played. They’re 13-0 when shooting over 37%. The fact that there isn’t a single outlier in the loss column would suggest that threes really are pretty darned important to the team. To further drive that point home, here are their five worst three point performances of the year, and how each game turned out:

19.4% in a 16 point loss to Baylor
23.1% in a 12 point loss to Texas Tech
25% in a 9 point loss to Washington
28.6% in a 4 point win over Kentucky
31.2% in a 5 point loss to Oklahoma

Kansas has lost just six games, and four of them can be found in their five worst 3 point performances of the year. Throwing out non-conference games against opponents outside the KenPom top 100, here’s a scatter chart of the relationship between 3 point percentage and scoring margin:

There’s a pretty prominent trend here. Though again, it’s nothing earth-shattering, the better the Jayhawks shoot from three, the better they fare. This would all support the idea that if Kansas shoots poorly, you can generally expect a frustrating viewing experience.

Made three pointers, however, are only one aspect of three point shooting. The number of threes being attempted is a pretty big factor as well. With Kansas being one of the nation’s better three point shooting teams, you can probably expect more threes to mean more success, right? Or maybe shooting too many threes actually hurts them. Which one could it be?

Neither! It doesn’t seem to make a bit of difference how many of KU’s shots are coming from behind the arc. There is a very slight negative correlation here, small enough to be dismissed based on the sample size. In both losses and wins, KU has shot both many and few threes. There’s no noticeable relationship here. This would suggest that when we’re yelling at our TVs about KU’s shot selection, we should probably stay away from yelling about how many (or few) threes they’re taking.

Of course, none of this is causal. Making more threes could be closely associated with other factors, like better shooting performances from inside the arc, or playing worse defensive teams. That would be another post in itself, and would probably be even less exciting to read about. Still, it’s interesting to note that outside shooting follows the results on the scoreboard pretty closely for this team.