Before North Carolina's practice at University of Phoenix Stadium here on Thursday, Justin Jackson and some of his teammates began teasing UNC's freshmen about the challenge ahead. Prepare yourselves, Jackson and others told them, to shoot some airballs.
Several airballs, in fact. Jackson wasn't doubting the shooting talents of some of UNC's younger players. But he was doubting their ability to adapt, quickly, to the cavernous environment of University of Phoenix Stadium, which looks from the outside like a giant spaceship waiting to lift off out of the desert.
Every year around this time, players in the Final Four are asked about how difficult it is to shoot from the perimeter in this setting, with a raised court sitting in the middle of an enormous arena, the stands seeming to stretch on endlessly in all directions. And so this year is no different.
“You walk out there on the court, and it's – that's a lot of space behind the goals,” said Jackson, who earlier in the NCAA tournament became UNC’s most prolific 3-point shooter in school history. “And at first it's hard to get used to.”
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The Tar Heels have some experience with this sort of thing, at least. Jackson and others who were around last season remember what it was like to play inside of NRG Stadium in Houston, the site of the Final Four last year. University of Phoenix Stadium isn't much different, at least on the inside.
The common perception is that it's more difficult to shoot in these large, spacious football stadiums because of, well, perception. Depth perception, to be precise. The belief is that all the space behind the basket alters a shooter's ability to measure his shot, to find the right amount of touch.
Recent history, though, suggests that it might be a myth – the notion that it's more difficult to shoot from the perimeter inside of places like University of Phoenix Stadium. In the past five Final Fours – all of them held in large stadiums built to host football – teams on average made a greater percentage of their 3-pointers than they did the rest of the season.
Last year, in Houston, both UNC and Villanova shot significantly better from the perimeter in the Final Four than they did throughout the season. The Tar Heels made 32.7 percent of their 3s last season, but they made 44.1 percent of their attempts during the Final Four, including 11 of 17 in the national championship game defeat against Villanova.
The Wildcats meanwhile, made 19 of their 32 3-point attempts in Houston. They made eight of their 14 attempts in the national championship game, including the one that Kris Jenkins made at the buzzer. UNC and Villanova are just two examples. Overall, 13 of the past 20 Final Four teams – before this season – made a greater percentage of 3-pointers in the Final Four than they did overall.
So, so much for the thought that it's more difficult to shoot in these enormous stadiums, right? Not exactly.
Jackson and his teammates here on Friday insisted that it really is a challenge, despite what the recent data might suggest. During the team's shootaround on Friday, they continued to try to acclimate themselves. That process began the day before, during a closed practice here.
“It's hands-down weird,” said Theo Pinson, the junior forward. “I mean, I think the toughest part – it really is all over the court. You're shooting at the top of the key, you're looking straight out, super far.
“When you're shooting in the corner, same thing. I mean, you just have to adjust, try to get as many shots up as you can from each spot, and just hope it goes in, sort of.”
Last year in the Final Four, it often went in for UNC. And so Jackson and Pinson had been there, done that – they arrived in Phoenix well aware of whatever challenges exist when adjusting to shooting in this environment. The Tar Heels' freshmen, meanwhile, didn't have the benefit of such experience.
And so Jackson and some of his teammates came to a consensus: at least one of UNC's freshmen would shoot at least five airballs their first time on the floor here.
“And I think one of them had three,” Jackson said. “So they were close.”