A little over one week ago, Wake Forest was coming off of their first ACC road win of the season against Boston College and came fractions of a second away from taking down one of the best teams in the conference, the Florida State Seminoles. Those same Seminoles went on to beat top 10 Virginia by 21 points just 2 days later. It looked like the Deacs were starting to put things together and had a chance of closing out the season strong. Then this week happened, and, well, Wake Forest got blown out twice on their own court by a combined score of 122-164 to Duke and NC State. That certainly feels like a pretty big setback, but statistically, there isn’t that big of a gap between the last 3 games.
Comparatively, the one biggest difference between the near win at Florida State and the blowout home losses to Duke and State is 3-point shooting. The Deacs shot 48% from downtown against Florida State and just 28% against both Duke and State. Obviously the turnovers and fast break points against the Pack also played a role, but outside of that, everything else is pretty similar.
Basically, Wake Forest has embodied the “live by the 3, die by the 3” axiom. The Deacs are currently attempting over 25 3-point attempts per game (47th in the nation) and making just under 9 of those attempts per game (51st in the nation). On the flip side, there are about 20 teams in the NCAA that average fewer than Wake’s 30.3 2-point attempts per game. This is reflected in the team’s point distribution for this season, as the Deacs are scoring 39% of their total points from beyond the arc and just 42% of their total points from 2-point range. For comparison, among the 357 division I basketball teams, only 18 teams score a higher percentage of their points from downtown, and only 23 teams score a lower percentage from inside the arc. The bottom line here is that if Wake is not hitting a decent percentage of their 3-pointers, they are missing a massive chunk—almost 40%—of their offensive output.
The reason the Deacs have relied so heavily on the 3-pointer this season is simply due to the roster makeup of the team. When Steve Forbes came to Wake Forest, we knew he wanted to run a 4 and 5 out position-less motion offense to spread the defense and attack the basket. That is a very difficult system to run with very few ball handlers and a slew of spot up shooters. Outside of Daivien Williamson and Ian DuBose, the Deacs don’t really have many other guys that can put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. The result of that is a lot of catch and shoot 3-pointers and long range shots at the end of the shot clock when the Deacs struggle to get anything inside.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shooting a billion 3-pointers per game. The eggheads will tell you that statistically, it’s probably the most efficient way to score points. That being said, when over 45% of a team’s shots are coming from downtown, there’s going to be some pretty massive swings in performance. On days where everything is dropping from deep, the Deacs are going to look really good—Wake is 2-2 in the ACC when shooting over 40% from downtown with wins over Pitt and Miami and losses to Virginia and Florida State (the Deacs had 2nd half leads in both losses). On days where nothing will drop, Wake is going to look not so great and probably get blown out; the Deacs are 1-4 in the ACC when shooting under 30% from 3-point range, with a single win over Boston College and double digit losses to State, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Louisville.
Just as a side note, this is not to ignore all of the other issues Wake has had this season. The Deacs still have problems with turnovers, an inability to rebound, and the fact that over 15% of their shot attempts are getting swatted by opponents, just to name a few. The point here is that because Wake Forest shoots so many 3-pointers, when they are hitting them, it is enough to cover up all of those other issues and give Wake a chance to win the game. When they are not hitting them, those other issues become very, very apparent.
A couple of blowout losses is no time to panic, it’s the nature of a team that is so heavily dependent upon 3-point shooting. I also feel like I should point out that the global pandemic has probably made this the single toughest season ever to be a new coach with a roster full of transfer players. It’s going to take some time for Forbes to recruit players that he believes will fit into what he’s trying to do on offense, as he has always been one to “recruit offense, coach defense.” In my mind that likely means more players that are good at scoring from all 3 levels, and fewer players that are really, really good at scoring at 1 level. Until then, Wake must continue to play to their strengths, and that means it’s bombs away from downtown.