The best teams are typically the best for a reason. One of the things that makes some teams better than others is shot distribution. Better offenses generally get better shots, while better defenses typically force their opponents into poorer shots.
Shot distribution is easy to measure. Play-by-play logs compiled during college basketball games place shots into three separate categories: shots at the rim, two point jump shots, and three point jump shots. Looking across Division I ball, about one third of all shots come at the rim, one third on two point jump shots, and one third on three point jump shots. On average, shots at the rim are made a little more than 60 percent of the time, while two point jump shots and three point jump shots fall 35 percent of the time and 34 percent of the time, respectively. These basic shooting percentages create a clear hierarchy of shots. Shots at the rim are the most valuable (unless they come against Kansas, as we will see below). Three point shots are generally not as productive as shots at the rim, but they are far better than two point jump shots.
While there are certainly arguments that the AP poll doesn’t do the best job of ranking teams, the top ten teams in the AP poll are generally very good. Going through the shot distributions of these teams, and the shot distributions of opponents of these teams, nicely illustrates the value of getting good shots and preventing the opposition from getting good shots.
The figure below presents the shot distributions of the top ten teams in the AP poll as of December 29. It plots the percentage of shots taken from three point range vs. the percentage of shots taken at the rim for each of the top ten teams in the AP poll. Also included in the figure are horizontal and vertical lines. The intersection of these lines is the Division I average shot distribution.
A few things stand out in that figure. Kansas, Missouri, Syracuse, and Indiana all get a high percentage of their shot attempts from in close. Only three other teams in Division I basketball get a higher proportion of their shots at the rim than the Jayhawks. Much of Kansas’ effectiveness on offense is due to the fact that Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey, Travis Releford, Perry Ellis, and Kevin Young all get a very high percentage of their shot attempts on dunks and layups.
Louisville, Michigan, and Duke all excel for reasons other than their shot distribution. Michigan and Duke both shoot for a high percentage from three point range and at the rim, while Louisville manages to connect on 72 percent of their shots from in close. Ohio State also manages solid shooting percentages at the rim and from beyond the arc (67 percent and 36 percent, respectively). Cincinnati hasn’t shot the ball very well this season; the Bearcats success so far this year is due to offensive rebounding and defense.
Among the teams in the top ten, Arizona is the only one that shoots a fairly high proportion of their attempts from beyond the arc. 39 percent of the Wildcats’ shots come from long distance, and 39 percent of these attempts go down. The five players on Sean Miller’s team with the most shot attempts all take at least 40 percent of their attempts from downtown.
The shot distributions of opponents facing the defenses of these top ten teams also paints an interesting picture. The figure below shows this shot distribution. It plots the percentage of shots taken from three point range vs. the percentage of shots taken at the rim against each of the top ten teams in the AP poll. As in the previous figure, there are two lines in the plot, and the intersection of these lines is the Division I average shot distribution.
Michigan, Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, Louisville, Syracuse, and Ohio State all force opponent to take less than 30 percent of their shot attempts at the rim, while in most cases only permitting a slightly higher than average fraction of shots from beyond the arc. For example, Michigan opponents end up taking 44 percent of their shots as two point jump shots. The Wolverine offense has been great, but the defense has also been very strong, and cutting off the rim from opponents is a big part of the reason why.
Duke focuses heavily on preventing opponent three point attempts. The Blue Devils accomplish this while still holding opponents to a lower than average fraction of attempts from three point range. While less extreme, the Cincinnati Bearcats have also done a decent job of running opponents off the three point line.
And then there is Kansas. Kansas’ defense is an outlier, giving up what appears to be a fairly efficient shot distribution, with opponents getting off 33 percent of their attempts at the rim and 39 percent of their shots from three point range. The key to Kansas’ success on defense has been shot blocking. Jayhawk opponents have a 44 percent field goal percentage on their attempts at the rim, which is substantially lower than the D-I average of 61 percent shooting from in close. This is because Kansas has blocked 29 percent of opponent attempts at the basket, a shot blocking percentage at the rim that is by far the best in the nation. When we factor in both offense and defense, Jeff Withey possibly means more to his team than any other player in D-I. Jayhawk opponents are wise to shoot so often from three point range, as points at the rim don’t come particularly easy.