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Despite three-point shooting woes, Zags’ offense still elite

Two points can be just as good as three.

NCAA Basketball: Merrimack at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first half of Gonzaga’s win over Merrimack, the Zags missed all six three-point attempts and the clamoring started to echo around the fanbase on the internet: a lack of a three-point threat is going to kill this team.

On one hand, that is pretty much a guarantee for most basketball squads. If you don’t have a three-point shooting threat, defenses can sag off the perimeter all they want and collapse on the interior. For players like Drew Timme, this limits their effectiveness around the post. For an offense like Gonzaga’s, which funnels a huge chunk of its points through the frontcourt, this can be disastrous.

On the year, the Zags are shooting just 32.9 percent from long range, good for No. 183 in the country. That is the lowest mark for the Zags in the past 20 years, easily under 2010’s team clip of 35.5 percent. On most teams, that would spell doom for the offense. And yet, the Zags still own an effective field goal percentage of 59.0—the fourth-highest mark in the country.

Effective field goal percentage adjusts the field goal percentage to account for the fact that three-point field goals count more than two-point field goals. So it is not a surprise to see that most of the teams that have the best effective field goal percentage in the the nation also shoot the three-point shot at an effective rate. Pretty much all teams except for Gonzaga.

eFG%

team eFG% KenPom Rank 3P% KenPom Rank
team eFG% KenPom Rank 3P% KenPom Rank
Colorado State 61.3 1 44 1
Purdue 60.1 2 41.9 5
Loyola Chicago 59.8 3 41.8 7
Gonzaga 59 4 32.9 183
San Francisco 58 5 37.9 42
Kansas 57.4 6 35.2 110
Florida Atlantic 57.4 6 36.9 57
Wake Forest 57.4 6 37 55
Houston 57.2 9 38.4 34
South Dakota State 57.2 9 42.1 3

If you look at the top 10 teams in eFG%, they are all either elite shooting programs or rather good, with the exceptions being Kansas, and then an even lower Gonzaga.

The reason for the Zags inclusion in the mix? They are shooting a college-best 64.5 percent from two, and it is largely one of the reasons that at the end of the day, the Zags’ poor results from three doesn’t necessarily doom this team.

One of the reasons basketball has seen the midrange jumper all-but disappear on the NBA level (and in a lot of the current crop of recruits coming through the college ranks) has to do with efficiency. If you take 10 three-point attempts and make one-third of them, you have generated 10 points (essentially, technically 9.99999999999999999999999).

On the same note, if you take 10 two-point field goals, you need to shoot 50 percent to generate the same 10 points. Therefore, as a shooter, if you take 10 three-pointers and hit 40 percent of them, that equates to 12 points, versus just eight points if you shoot 40 percent from two.

The Zags’ (like Kansas, who are No. 4 from two at 59.2) is the inverse of that. To equate the level of efficiency the Zags score from two, the Zags would have to shoot 43 percent from three as a team, which would be the third-best mark in the country.

The reason the Zags are able to get away with this nonsense offense is because of two specific players: Timme and Chet Holmgren.

Timme is shooting a staggering 67.3 percent from two. Of all of the college basketball players who attempt at least 10 two-point shots per game, only senior Utah State forward Justin Bean hits them at a more efficient clip than Timme.

That number would be impressive if one did not factor in his frontcourt teammate. Holmgren is shooting a mind-boggling 78.6 percent from two. That is the highest mark in college hoops amongst players who have attempted at least five two-point shots per game.

To put that into mathematical perspective, for a long distance shooter to be as efficient as Chet is from two, it would require him to hit 52.4 percent of his three-point shots.

Holmgren and Timme on average combine for roughly one-third of the Zags’ total field goal attempts each game. Their magic inside the perimeter extends to virtually every other member of the Zags. Of the eight major contributors, Rasir Bolton shoots a team-low 52.8 percent.

Even Kansas, who has a not-quite-as-dramatic 2P/3P split as the Zags can’t get away with that. Senior center David McCormack is shooting just 48.4 percent from two this season.

For Gonzaga, the efficiency down low makes them a difficult team to stop. Although the glaring free throws helped make that Alabama loss extra painful, the Crimson Tide also managed to hold the Zags to just 47.7 percent from two. That is the lowest mark since Gonzaga went 20-for-53 in a loss to Michigan in November 2019.

It may be painful to hear those heavy clanks each time another three-pointer gets heaved from who knows where—but unless the Zags shoot a painfully low rate from three in a game, statistically it most likely will not come to burn them. Rather, it will probably be a failure to convert from closer to the rim.