We've all heard how great Kansas State's 3-point defense is this season. The numbers tell us opponents are shooting just 27.6% from beyond the arc, fifth-best in the country. But is the Wildcats' 3-point defense really that good?
Just using the eye test, we can all likely agree Bruce Weber's team does a reasonable job of closing out on shooters and of course, they don't play a lot of standard zone, so opponents don't typically get a ton of great looks that way. K-State doesn't have extraordinary size or length, but Wesley Iwundu certainly makes it better and there aren't any noticeably undersized players on the perimeter.
Ken Pomeroy would not be impressed at all by Kansas State's high ranking, since he believes teams don't really have any effect an opponents' 3-point percentage. In fact, he argues it would be only a little more ridiculous to give teams credit for holding their opponents to a low free throw percentage, and the best way to measure 3-point defense is by how many threes an opponent attempts.
He certainly makes a good point with some valid data to back him up (check out those links!), but that view seems a bit simplistic. I'm not sure exactly how this would be measured, but I think it's fair to say a guarded three will be more difficult to make, and if you're doing a good job guarding two-pointers as well, then the number of opponent 3-point attempts could be less instructive than the percentage.
With that in mind, let's look at some numbers. Clearly, it would be foolish to try to draw any conclusions from one or two games, but we've worked up a big enough sample size to try to draw some trends. In the table below, you'll see K-State opponents/results, plus their season 3-point % and rank compared to what they shot vs. Kansas State, as well as each opponent's season average for 3-pointers and how many they shot vs. Kansas State. I have bolded numbers when the 'Cats held teams below season averages. All season stats are from ESPN as of games through Monday, Jan. 19.
|Team||NCAA Rank||3P%||3P% vs. KSU||3PA||3PA vs. KSU|
|vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore, 80-53||287||32%||24%||20||21|
|vs. Columbia 81-71||56||38%||21%||26||24|
|vs. South Dakota 93-72||42||38%||26%||18||27|
|vs. Mizzou (in KC) 66-42||265||32%||21%||17||19|
|vs. North Carolina (in KC) 70-80||245||33%||27%||17||20|
|vs. South Carolina St. 68-66||150||35%||39%||18||23|
|at Georgia 68-66||76||37%||30%||17||10|
|vs. Coppin State 83-58||291||31%||10%||22||21|
|at Texas A&M 78-68||33||39%||50%||22||14|
|Colorado State (in Wichita) 61-56||54||38%||27%||26||22|
|vs. North Dakota 63-49||279||32%||17%||16||12|
|vs. Saint Louis 75-47||286||32%||18%||17||28|
|vs. West Virginia 83-87 (2OT)||295||31%||15%||19||20|
|at Texas 60-57||196||34%||26%||23||23|
|at Oklahoma 86-76||1||45%||58%||23||19|
|vs. Texas Tech 83-70||324||30%||32%||17||22|
|vs. Iowa State 76-63||125||36%||38%||23||16|
The average rank of K-State's opponents is 176, almost square in the middle out of 351 teams. So you can't say the Wildcats have gotten a particular advantage or disadvantage out of playing teams that shoot the three well or really poorly.
It's hard for me to believe holding so many teams shooting below their season average -- often by a significant margin -- would be completely random. Yes, many of those teams shot more threes than usual, and K-State's overall 2-point percentage defense ranks a mediocre 185th, according to KenPom. That might have something to do with the fact the 'Cats rank dead last in the Big 12 with 2.35 blocks per game. It doesn't exactly support the hypothesis that contested 3-pointers were all teams could find, although it's worth noting the 'Cats rank 23rd in KenPom's overall adjusted defensive efficiency.
However, most of those games were against mediocre teams, many of whom fell behind early, so perhaps they were forcing outside shots to try to catch up. The exception, of course, would be North Carolina, but keep in mind the Tar Heels were playing without Marcus Paige and never held a big lead until the final five minutes.
The two SEC road games show an interesting contrast as the games when teams shot the fewest threes, with vastly different results. Oklahoma followed Texas A&M's example and shot relatively few at a high percentage, but the Sooners are almost so unfairly good as to warrant taking them off the list. Kansas is No. 2, by the way.
So, what does it all mean? Well, Kansas State's 3-point defense probably isn't fifth-best in the country. The 'Cats still let opponents take quite a few shots outside the arc, but I think there's more than just bad luck forcing them to miss. This is, generally, an excellent team defending the 3, even if it does regress back towards the mean a bit in the final two months of the season.
Perhaps the most troubling part of this data is the trend over the last three games. I believe Eric mentioned uncharacteristically poor closeouts and lazy defense around the 3-point line in a recent recap, so we could be seeing that reflected in the numbers. Baylor is the Big 12's third-best 3-point shooting team, so KSU had better get any issues fixed to have a chance to pull off the upset in Waco Wednesday night.
Honestly, though, if improvement is going to be made on defense, it probably should be in the paint. Considering how punchless the K-State offense is most nights, the 'Cats must help, help, and help some more to ensure it's very difficult to score easy baskets in the paint. That's where games will be won and lost more often than beyond the arc.