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NCAA Basketball: Texas at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most common laments among Texas faithful over the last couple of seasons has been a question something along the lines of “why doesn’t/can’t Shaka Smart recruit shooters”. It’s an understandable question when you look at the lack of quality outside threats Texas has had since Javan Felix and Eric Davis Jr. provided a solid underpinning of distance shooting in Shaka’s first season. We talked about this some on Pretend We’re Football this week (insert incredibly shameless plug here):

After we talked about it, I decided to delve a little deeper to see if I could quantify some aspects of how a team “gets” shooters. One of the main steps I took was to pull down data from the NCAA stats site to try to find any recurring themes. I downloaded the past 8 full seasons’ worth of data (excluding the current season as it’s still a relatively small sample size) and imported it into Excel to tinker with the numbers. Yes, I know, this is incredibly sexy of me. Try not to tear my clothes off, ladies. (And gents, and anyone in between, I guess; we’re a progressive blog. Aliens from another dimension can come get some though wink) You can click that link and see what I did, if you have Excel. The Google Sheets version loses all of the links I made between sheets for some reason; presumably because they can’t monetize it for ad revenue, or because I did something wrong. I’m blaming the enormous corporation like the secret communist half of Twitter thinks I am.

Wait, did I say the quiet part out loud again?

Data and Stuff

The data set is from the three-point percentage leaders for each year; they had to average at least 2.5 makes per game and play in 75% of the team’s games in that particular year. In other words, a bench guy who went 4-6 over a couple of games couldn’t get in because he was hot and never played again. A couple of things are pretty noticeable in the data. First off, the NBA analytics revolution is starting to really insert itself into the D-I game. In the first six years the number of players who qualify for this list hovers somewhere around 70, but the last two years it’s been closer to 100 with the 2015-2016 season nearly hitting 120 players. That’s a massive rise in the number of players who are able to qualify for this list with their quantity of makes, and this season the number is 161. That will inevitably fall as players cool off, get injured, or otherwise fail to hit the two minimums, but we’re still in line for a significantly higher number of players than even four or five years ago.

Second, and the most statistically stable numbers on this spreadsheet to me — the guy who is not a statistician — is how this list breaks down by class. There are 618 entries in this spreadsheet (counting duplicates as some players show up multiple years) and just over half of them are seniors. Every season of available data has seniors making up the largest individual category in this list, never less than 45% of the qualifying players in a single year. Second-most on the list? Juniors in aggregate (just under 28%), as well as every individual year except one. Third-most on this list is sophomores (about 17%) and bringing up the rear are freshmen with not quite 5%. It doesn’t take a genius to notice the pattern, and it’s not a particularly shocking find when you think about it. Buddy Hield is a favored example people want to bring up about guys who come back and get better at shooting, and he plays into this pattern quite nicely. He’s not on here as a freshman, and his next three seasons he’s ranked 46th (90 makes on 223 attempts), 63rd (93/259), and 6th (147/322, good lord), respectively. As is true with most college sports, the best thing about a freshman is that they become a sophomore, a sophomore becomes a junior, and a junior becomes a senior. It seems fair to say that shooters in general aren’t recruited as much as cultivated. There are exceptions to this idea — hello, Trae Young — but those exceptions are generally not likely to stay in college for three to four years — goodbye, Trae Young — either.

With that in mind, allow me to bring in another piece of data

Witness the Reckolution, err, Evolutioning

Current Texas Shooters

Player Year 3-point FG 3-point FGA 3-point FG %
Player Year 3-point FG 3-point FGA 3-point FG %
Eric Davis, Jr. Freshman 42 110 38.18%
Eric Davis, Jr. Sophomore 38 147 25.85%
Eric Davis, Jr. Junior 5 22 22.73%
Andrew Jones Freshman 43 131 32.82%
Andrew Jones Sophomore 16 37 43.24%
Jacob Young Freshman 25 110 22.73%
Jacob Young Sophomore 9 27 33.33%
Jase Febres Freshman 5 22 22.73%

And one other, because I’m a sadist.

See You at the Crossroads

Player Year 3-point FG 3-point FGA 3-point FG %
Player Year 3-point FG 3-point FGA 3-point FG %
Tevin Mack Freshman 34 114 29.82%
Tevin Mack Sophomore 34 87 39.08%

The Texas Longhorns have zero seniors, one junior, a couple sophomores, and a freshman that people would classify as ‘shooters’. If shooters are truly cultivated, then Texas is predominantly on the early part of that curve with Jacob Young, Jase Febres, and Andrew Jones still at least a year away from being upperclassmen...or in Jones’ case, a year away from the NBA. It’s also worth noting as another data point in support of this cultivation idea that Jones, Young, and the ghost of Tevin Mack all showed growth in their perimeter shooting year over year. Shaka Smart and staff are attempting to recruit players who will ultimately be shooters, and only time will tell if their evaluation of shooting ability will pay off. You could make the argument that there are signs progress is happening with the improvement of Jones, Young, and Mack, however it’s also worth noting the regression of Davis as a sign this progress isn’t a given. There’s an alternate dimension where Davis followed the same arc as the others, Mack continued being a team player, and Texas is currently sporting 3 legit weapons from deep (and hell, Jordan Barnett is the steady senior wing presence hitting a couple threes a night when Mack is on the bench). Alas, we are in the Rick Sanchez 716-C dimension. If the goal is to recruit shooters, it’s a longer arc than I think most of us realize. However, there is another way.

Transfers

Transfers are an increasingly viable way of short-circuiting the development cycle, landing solid players with one to three years left in their eligibility and an aptitude for one or more areas that can contribute to a team in need. Rick Barnes didn’t utilize the transfer market much until his later years, but Shaka Smart’s staff has been more active in this area. In his third season, he’s already brought in three transfers of note: Mareik Isom, Dylan Osetkowski, and Elijah Long. Two of these were brought in primarily for their shooting ability, whereas Osetkowski was brought in for his all-around value. Isom was supposed to be a major perimeter threat, and if you see his Arkansas Little-Rock stats it’s not hard to imagine him being a guy who hit 40% from three. (As an aside, he’s another guy who struggled his freshman year, hitting 23% from deep before hitting 44% and 39% the next two seasons, respectively.) Unfortunately for Texas, a lower-leg surgery kept him on ice for more than half the season. A healthy Isom would’ve been able to connect on north of 38% of his threes and been an infusion of energy on an offense sorely lacking any. Elijah Long is a little different player in the sense that he’s used to having the ball in his hands, but his ability to hit a quality three is without much question. (Long showed year over year improvement going from 33% to 38% from three at Mount St. Mary’s. It’s funny how this keeps happening.) I’m not really including Osetkowski in this thread because I don’t think he really fits the topic we’re talking about here, and I don’t mean that as a slight towards him. He would’ve been worth a scholarship even if he shoots 26% from deep. Which, uh, he’s kinda doing right now. nervously shuffles papers Moving on.

Where does this leave us, as viewers, fans, an increasingly inebriated writers? Other than short on tequila, and long on spreadsheets — just me? fair enough — mostly in a situation where the only real answer is to wait and see. Shaka and his staff have a rare abundance of time thanks to his fully-guaranteed deal, so they’re able to build on a longer runway than most. This is not to say they’re slacking; I think we can see by their recruiting classes & activity on the transfer market they’re definitely busting their collective ass to bring in answers for the problems that vex them and to cultivate the kinds of players that will make the Longhorns into their vision of a well-rounded team. We are also potentially near an inflection point of the talent cycle, where the young shooters start to become veteran shooters and the transfers inject another layer of shooting ability. It’s possible a year from now we’re looking at a team with a senior big, three junior guards, and a sophomore wing who are all able to connect on 35%+ of their threes. At that point, any perimeter shooting ability from the likes of Kerwin Roach II and Matt Coleman are a nice bonus rather than a necessity, and the incoming freshmen are able to be complementary pieces to an increasingly efficient offense rather than necessary band-aids covering the gaping wounds left by the departed talent. Or maybe I’m back here next year burying myself in COUNTIFS functions trying to figure out what in the hell is wrong with this team. I know which one I’d rather it be.

BWG’s quixotic spreadsheeting tunes provided by a surprisingly un-cheesy Markus Schulz.