Virginia Basketball: Comparing dominant 3PT defense with the Toronto Raptors

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Virginia Basketball

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – NOVEMBER 16: Kihei Clark #0 and Braxton Key #2 of the Virginia Cavaliers (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

College basketball fans have become familiar with Virginia’s elite 3PT defenses. Have the NBA’s Toronto Raptors managed to replicate this success?

As analytics have become increasingly prevalent in college basketball, there’s been ample research suggesting the “randomness” of 3PT% defense. Although teams have some control over how many threes their opponents take, they have very little control over how many threes their opponents make. Therefore, 3PT attempt rate, not 3PT%, is the better measure of a team’s 3PT defense. Ken Pomeroy summarized the idea well all the way back in 2012.

(Credit to KenPom and NBA.com for statistics (data as of 8.8.20) and NBAESPN and ACC Digital Network for GIFS)

“With few exceptions, the best measure of three-point defense is a team’s ability to keep the opponents from taking 3’s…When someone discusses three-point defense in terms of three-point percentage, they might as well make the leap to discuss free-throw defense in similar terms. Teams have much more control over how many three’s their opponents shoot than how many they make.”

In 2013, Pomeroy conceded that defenses can have some impact on opponent 3PT percentages. Teams with quality interior defenses and/or effectively challenge threes can affect 3PT% to a certain degree. His core philosophy (that 3PT% is generally “random”) was essentially retained, however.

Over the last several seasons, Virginia Basketball been the exception to this rule, proving themselves well beyond a statistical anomaly. Not only have Tony Bennett’s squads been elite defensively as a whole (1st, 5th, 1st last three seasons), their 3PT% defenses have been anything but random (16th, 3rd, 9th), ranking towards the top of the sport one season after another.

A notable quirk of this success is that it has coincided with Virginia’s opponents shooting A TON of 3-pointers. Last season, the Cavaliers were 315th among 353 teams in defensive 3PT attempt rate (going forward in article, higher attempt rate ranking (+300 for NCAA, 25-30 for NBA) means team has allowed MORE threes compared to its peers).

If one follows both collegiate and professional basketball, they might have already recognized this “Virginia profile” in one notable NBA team this season: the defending champion Toronto Raptors.

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