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Live by the 3, die by the 3

Justin St. Germain
Sports Editor
By Justin St. Germain
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
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The men's basketball team dismantled UCLA Saturday, hanging a 25-point beating on the Bruins in historic Pauley Pavilion. After a bad loss to Southern California two days earlier, a statement Pac-10 win on national television was just what the UA faithful needed. Suddenly, the Stanford and USC debacles looked more like aberrations and less like the seventh sign of the apocalypse.

Then the box score went up on, and anybody who took a close look realized that one thing made the difference between an uncompetitive USC loss and steamrolling the Pac-10 leader on the road.

The difference wasn't the plus-8 rebounding differential, compared to the minus-16 against USC. The Wildcats only had one more offensive rebound, meaning they didn't score many more second-chance points than the Bruins. It wasn't Channing Frye's 26 points and 10 rebounds; he had 17 and six two days earlier. Both of those contributed to the turnaround, but neither was enough to make up the 34-point difference between a 9-point loss and a 25-point win.

One column told the game story: 3-point percentage. On Saturday: 14-23, or 60.9 percent. At USC, 8-30, or 26.7 percent. Salim Stoudamire alone improved from 3 of 10 from deep against USC to 7 of 11 at UCLA.

When the team's hitting 3s like it did in Pauley, the number of 3-pointers shot doesn't seem like a problem. But when it's putting up more bricks than the Alumni Plaza workers, like against USC, it seems like a big problem.

It's an old aphorism, but a good one: Live by the 3, die by the 3.

UA's season thus far has been a case study of this phenomenon. The Wildcats came out in their first game against a hopelessly overmatched Northern Arizona squad and hit just 7 of 23 - 30 percent -from deep, but cruised to a 34-point win anyway, thanks in large part to NAU chucking up 29 treys of its own, and hitting just seven. Then came a real team, Florida, and a similar shooting performance from deep, with the UA hitting 5 of 21, or 24 percent. Only this time, the Wildcats lost.

And it's kept happening, over and over: Shoot well from 3 and win, shoot poorly and either lose or allow a lesser opponent to stay in the game. Against a ranked Marquette team, the UA shot 13 of 20 and won by 10. Against a marginal Louisiana-Lafayette team, Arizona shot 8 of 30 until the final 20 seconds. Then, with the game tied at 69 and less than 10 seconds left, Andre Iguodala took the inbounds from Mustafa Shakur, jumped over a flailing Ragin' Cajun, and hit the winning shot - from beyond the arc.

Live by the 3, die by the 3.

In fact, the team seems to have bought into the 3-point mentality so much that it's become the entire half-court offense. A typical UA possession in the Stanford loss two weeks ago went something like this: Shakur brought the ball down, passed to the wing in the corner to start the offense, and then the off-ball players stood out by the 3-point line waiting for the ball. Occasionally, somebody would cut like a rusty butterknife across the baseline, just for effect. Once in a while, Channing Frye would get an inlet pass.

But not nearly enough. Frye attempted only eight shots in the USC loss, and 13 against Stanford. Most of the time, the half-court offense depends on 3-point shooting by Stoudamire, who has attempted more shots than Frye in all three Arizona losses.

And Stoudamire's quick trigger seems to be contagious. Against USC, Serbian freshman Ivan Radenovic shot the ball almost every time he touched it, including jacking up five 3s and hitting none. The last time a Serb shot this much, the United Nations had to intervene.

As an undersized team, Arizona has to rely on the deep ball to some degree. But the Pac-10's best center makes a better big-game go-to guy than Stoudamire, a preternaturally gifted shooter whose talent is matched only by his inconsistency. A lot of Pac-10 teams have 2-guards who can light it up if they get hot - USC's Desmon Farmer illustrated that by hanging 40 on the UA - but not many have a center with the presence of Frye. With the possible exception of Stanford, no one has the one-two punch to match Arizona.

But when only one is throwing punches, the Wildcats will continue to be inconsistent and struggle against inferior opponents. The UCLA game, in which both Frye and Stoudamire got their share of the ball, was a step in the right direction. It showed that this team could beat anybody if it's hitting the 3.

But the USC loss, and the scares against Saint Mary's and Louisiana-Lafayette, showed that it can lose to anybody if the 3s aren't falling, which doesn't bode well for tourney time - or for this week's must-win, should-win matchups against the Oregon schools.

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