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KU, UK learn from last year’s championship shooting struggles to reach title game

by Brian Burnsed
IU NCAA Final Four Student News Bureau

NEW ORLEANS – Those who learn from history will go on to write it.

Ignoring the lessons of the past—especially those taught recently—is perilous. During Saturday’s national semifinal games, it was readily apparent that Kansas and Kentucky had been diligent in their studies—both teams paid close attention to last year’s shooting debacle in the Final Four. A year ago, Butler, Connecticut, VCU and Kentucky cumulatively hoisted 128 three-pointers into Reliant Stadium’s 90,000,000 cubic feet of space. Only 36 of them were embraced by nylon and each team shot below their season average from beyond the arc.

Though their target was 10 feet above the hardwood, as it had been in any other arena they’d played in, the backdrop behind the basket was jarringly different. The rim floated in that massive expanse, hundreds of feet of open air separating it from the nearest solid surface, which toyed with each shooter’s depth perception. This year is no different. The two orange cylinders seem lonely and lost in the even larger Superdome.

Kentucky and Kansas both shot far fewer threes on Saturday than they did in the regular season. Kansas was 3-of-11 from beyond the arc after attempting 16.6 three-pointers-per-game this year. Kentucky only flung seven attempts from deep, making two, after trying 14.6-per-game this season and 27 in last year’s national semifinal loss to Connecticut.

On Saturday, both teams largely avoided the temptation of trying to earn three points with a simple flick of the wrist. Both teams won. Both teams will be playing for a national championship on Monday—the winner forever etched into history books.

Kentucky sophomore guard Doron Lamb passed on several open looks from the corner, opting instead to drive to the basket. Lamb attempted four three-pointers-per-game this season, draining 46 percent of them, but only flung two against Louisville on Saturday.

“We just didn’t feel like shooting it really [in the dome],” Lamb said. “We just wanted to get to the rack. We kept getting easy buckets at the rim.”

Ohio State, however, ignored what happened in Houston last season. Of the four teams in this year’s Final Four, they were the only one to shoot more threes on Saturday than they’d averaged throughout the year. They launched 22 from deep against Kansas after attempting 15.2-per-game during the season.

“I take the approach they have to adapt [to shooting],” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said on Friday. “I’m not concerned about it.”

Perhaps he should’ve been. Only eight of those attempts fell through—his team is going home.

After knocking a few threes down during Ohio State’s scrimmage on Friday, sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas swelled with confidence. His smooth left-handed stroke had helped carry the Buckeyes through the early rounds of the tournament, as he shot more than 40 percent from distance through the first four games. But all of those were played in arenas built for basketball with backdrops far closer to the rim than in the Superdome. Still, Thomas was undaunted on Friday.

“It felt pretty good; I shot it really well,” Thomas said with a wry, self-assured smile. “I think I’m going to shoot a couple of threes tomorrow.”

He did just that, launching seven, which tied a season high.

But only one garnered three points for the Buckeyes.

Had Thomas been more acquainted with history, he’d have understood that hubris ultimately leads to a hero’s downfall. Thomas’s budding confidence in his shot was thwarted by the rim floating out in an ocean of 73,331 spectators, and lost 243 feet under the Superdome roof.

“[We wanted to give] Deshaun the opportunity to stretch the defense,” Matta said. “That was probably the biggest advantage I think that they had on us. You know, our inability to put the ball in the basket there was something that enabled them to gather momentum and get themselves going.”

Louisville’s senior guard Kyle Kuric struggled too. He went 3-of-8 from the field after shooting 42 percent this year. He missed his lone free throw attempt and hit nothing but air on a crucial second-half 3-pointer from the corner. Louisville, too, is going home early.

Though he’s grown used to playing in Big East rival Syracuse’s Carrier Dome, Kuric said that the vast expanse of the Superdome is jarringly different.

“You’re in that one little corner of the Carrier Dome where one side looks pretty good,” Kuric said. “Here the court is in the center and you’re all surrounded, so it’s a lot different.”

Kansas senior guard Tyshawn Taylor is zero for the tournament from beyond the arc. Given his recent struggles, and the odd shooting environment in New Orleans, he only attempted three three-pointers against Ohio State—below his season average—despite the fact that Kansas trailed for the bulk of the game.

“I think that I personally have to understand that if my shots are not falling, I can do other things,” Taylor said. “We can stop the other team from scoring, rebounding and be tough. If we can continue to do that—whether the threes are falling or not—we can be an effective team.”

Indeed, Kansas was effective, using defense and quality looks inside to claw back into the game and steal a win. Rather than opting to live or die by the three, the Jayhawks simply ignored it. Kentucky, too, spurned the temptress.

Now one of them will make history on Monday night.

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