Randy Bennett took over as the head coach at St. Mary’s in 2001, and his first few seasons in Moraga, California weren’t anything special. That first year, the Gaels posted a 9-20 record, and they followed it up with a 15-15 mark a season later. In Bennett’s third season the Gaels finally won more games than they lost. From that point, the rise of the St. Mary’s basketball was swift. Bennett’s teams have won more than twenty games in six of the last eight seasons, including winning 25 or more games in each of the last five years. The Gaels have emerged as a challenger to Gonzaga for WCC dominance, with the matchups between these two squads keeping Eastern time zone hoops fans up well past their bedtime.
The St. Mary’s Gaels currently lead Division I basketball in effective field goal percentage, at 59.7 percent. Their dynamite shooting efficiency is a product of one of the very best shot distributions in the college game. Coach Randy Bennett’s squad ruthlessly avoids mid-range shots, with a higher proportion of their attempts either coming at the rim or from three point range than any other team in the nation.
On average across college basketball, about one third of shot attempts are taken at the rim, about one third are taken as two point jump shots, and about one third are taken as three point attempts. On average, shots at the rim (which include layups and dunks) tend to go in roughly twice as often as shots from anywhere else on the floor. Using the play-by-play data at hoop-math.com, in the 2011-2012 season shots taken at the rim went in 61 percent of the time. All other field goal attempts went in 35 percent of the time. All other things being equal, the more often a team shoots at the rim, the higher a shooting percentage that they can expect. The remaining shots are divided into two point jump shots and three point jump shots. In the 2011-2012 season, two point jump shots went down 35 percent of the time, while three point shots were made 34 percent of the time. This seems counterintuitive; an eight foot shot ought to be easier to make than a 20 foot shoot. But the fact remains that in live game action, three point jump shots are about as likely to go in as two point jump shots. Perhaps this is affected by the extent to which a defense is able to contest shots from closer to the basket. In general, teams are better off shooting fewer two point jump shots, and more three point jump shots.
In St. Mary’s case, the shot distribution is very different from the norm. 46 percent of the Gaels’ shots come at the rim, 16 percent are two point jump shots, and 38 are three point attempts. Along with this shot distribution, Bennett’s team is also one of the best three point shooting teams in the country, hitting 42 percent from beyond the arc. But even with the high three point shooting percentage of the Gaels, the shot distribution is still important. If St. Mary’s shot a typical distribution of shots with their current shooting percentages, the Gael’s effective field goal percentage would be 55.4 percent. This total would still be good, but is would be substantially lower than the 59.7 percent effective field goal percentage they currently sport.
Virtually every player on St. Mary’s rigorously avoids mid-range attempts. Leading scorer Matthew Dellavedova attempts 58 percent of his shots from three point range, and only 25 percent on two point jumpers. Big man Brad Waldow takes 93 percent of his shots at the rim, a higher rate at the rim than any other player in Division I with 40 or more attempts. 59 percent of James Walker’s attempts are threes. Beau Levesque has attempted 53 percent of his shots at the rim, and 40 percent from long distance. Levesque almost never attempts a mid-range shot, having gone 0-4 on two point jump shots so far this season. Steven Holt is 0-5 on mid-range attempts, with 39 percent of his shots coming at the rim, and over half from distance. Jorden Page mostly takes threes. Mitchell Young and Matt Hodgson shoot mostly from very close to the hoop.
It is startling how systematic the Gaels are at avoiding mid-range attempts. They simply refuse to take them.