Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills has an assignment waiting for his players each fall when they return to the serene campus in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Sink 20,000 jump shots. You’ve got six weeks – with a personal rebounder for support.
Kevin Obanor, the team’s second-leading scorer, finished the job in six days.
”When you have guys that are willing to put in the work and be thankful for the people that are helping them, they’re going to be good at shooting the basketball,” Mills said.
Such dedication spurred the Golden Eagles to the NCAA Tournament, the program’s first appearance in 13 years. They have the eighth-best 3-point shooting percentage (38.99) in the country and have made 11.3 shots from behind the arc per game, the highest average among NCAA Division I teams. Max Abmas, who is the nation’s leading scorer, ranks 10th (43.27%) in the country among players with a qualifying amount of 3-point attempts.
Ohio State, the No. 2 seed in the South Region, faces Oral Roberts in the first round on Friday. The film review of their underdog-but-undaunted opponent showed the Buckeyes that they’d better be ready for the ball to be airborne often.
”They shoot it from everywhere,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said, emphasizing the last word.
Abmas is the most dangerous, one of three starters for the Golden Eagles shooting better than 42% from long range with the ability and confidence to let it fly a few steps across half court.
”You’ve just got to have good contests on his jumpers, know where he is, make sure that somebody’s around him at all times, just make sure you get a hand up,” said Buckeyes point guard Duane Washington Jr., who will be largely tasked with defending Abmas. ”He’ll hit some of them definitely. He’s a good player. But the more he takes of those, we’ll be all right.”
Mills and his staff don’t want 3-pointers at random, or with abandon. Abmas, he noted, scored 34 points at Denver on Jan. 15 with only making two 3-pointers.
”It’s not anything that we’ve ever talked about. We’ve just talked about, `Let’s take the best shot for the team,”’ said Mills, who has paired each of the program’s student and graduate assistants with a player as a personal rebounder. Those assistants’ task: to be ready at moment’s notice in case there’s a desire to go to the gym for extra practice.
As the NBA has been transformed by the 3-point revolution led on the court by players like Stephen Curry and in front offices by analytics specialists, there’s been some inevitable trickle-down to the college game. Abmas named Curry and Damian Lillard as his models for the way they get their teammates involved in the offense, create their own shots and of course hit 3-pointers at elite clips.
”I’m just a guy that doesn’t force anything. Just kind of what the defense gives me is what I’m going to take,” Abmas said.
Sometimes, if there’s little proof of sustained success, defenses will dare a team to launch from deep. The influence of NBA stars on fledgling collegians and the lure of the hero shot can frequently steer players toward hasty or forced attempts from behind the arc.
”That’s something I’ve struggled with, honestly,” Washington said, pointing to conversations about shot selection with Holtmann, assistant coach Jake Diebler and his father, Duane Washington Sr., who was once an NBA draft pick. ”I think working on it in practice and understanding what’s settling and what’s not and taking what the defense gives you and getting what you want, those two things are different.”
Washington was second in the Big Ten this season in 3-point percentage (38.1).
”Just knowing time and score, time and place, is what I’ve been working on and getting pretty good at,” he said.
The South Region is rife with sharp 3-point shooters, with No. 1 seed Baylor leading the nation at 41.82%. No. 14 seed Colgate is third at 40%. On the other end of the spectrum is No. 8 seed North Carolina, which struggled to score consistently from outside.
The Tar Heels rank 307th nationally with an average of 5.6 made 3-pointers per game and are 270th with their 31.7% percentage from behind the arc. That trails only last year’s 14-19 team (30.4%) for the worst in program history.
Their best bet has been freshman Kerwin Walton, who is shooting 41.5% from 3-point range while providing the necessary spacing for the team’s wealth of big men.
”We need him to get shots. He doesn’t look for a shot nearly as much as I would like for him to, and other guys look for their shots a heck of a lot more,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, adding: ”If you’ve got five scorers, it’s hard to guard you. If you’ve got one, that’s pretty easy. Well, we’ve got one guy that they’re worried about from the 3-point line, and they close out on him. We’ve got to look for him more. We’ve got to screen for him more. He’s got to move better. As he gets older and more experienced, he’ll be able to do that better.”
AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report.
More AP college basketball coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and updated bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket