Live By The Three, Die By The Three

Since the rule’s introduction in 1986, and through nearly three decades of existence, the 3-point play has greatly and undeniably impacted college basketball. Over the course of time, and with extended use, the perimeter shot has developed into the focus of offensive strategies, defensive adjustments, and recruiting ventures. And for many coaches, it has become an albatross-a feast or famine factor. Such was the case for men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue, who was fired by Boston College last week.

For Donahue, coaching success has consistently been tied to his squads’ 3-point shooting abilities. Before accepting the BC position, Donahue led Cornell to the Sweet Sixteen of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, as well as to the 2009 and 2010 Ivy League titles-heavily employing 3-point shooting through both the regular seasons and postseasons. The Cornell players were among the best perimeter shooters in their university’s history. With Donahue’s guidance, they set several outside shooting records. At the individual level, swingman Ryan Wittman seized his school’s record for most 3-pointers made in a single season in three different years, with an unprecedented 93 made shots his freshman year, 97 in his junior year, and 109 in the 2009-10 season. In that same season, the team itself gained notoriety for record setting as well: The squad completed the most 3-point field goals of any Cornell team to ever play-with a whopping 326 made shots, exceeding the second highest mark by 75 scores-on 43.3 percent shooting from beyond the perimeter, the best percentage in the nation.

Following his tenure at Cornell, and his appointment as head coach of the BC men’s basketball team, Donahue’s success continued to be predicated on 3-point shooting. In his inaugural year, the 2010-11 season, Donahue diverted from the offensive game plan of his predecessor, Al Skinner, and implemented his 3-point offense at the high major level. While 27.4 percent of the field goal attempts in BC’s previous season were potential 3-pointers-ranking 294th in the NCAA-approximately 43.3 percent of BC’s 2010-11 field goal attempts were from outside, ranking 11th in the nation, according to For the most part, the players took the tremendous change in stride. NBA-bound junior Reggie Jackson made 42.0 percent of his 3-point tries, for 71 total threes. Additionally, senior contributors Biko Paris and Joe Trapani combined for 126 total 3-pointers, driving Donahue’s offense. As a whole, the team shot 38.2 percent from the perimeter, the 25th best mark in the NCAA that year. With the aid of Skinner’s upperclassmen, this inaugural season proved to be Donahue’s most successful as BC’s coach: the team would finish with a 21-13 record. It would be the program’s first and last winning season under Donahue, though.

After a single year, with the departure of offensive pinnacles Jackson, Paris, and Trapani, the impact of the 3-point game rapidly diminished, accompanied by the disintegration of BC’s record. By the conclusion of the 2011-12 season, the team’s 3-point field goal percentage dipped to an average 33.9 percent, ranking 183rd in the NCAA, and the squad had gone 9-22, which accounted for, at that point, the most losses in school history. Additionally, during this span, defending the perimeter became an issue for Donahue, with opposing teams collectively posting a higher 3-point percentage (34.9) than his own squad for the first time since his second season coaching Cornell, from 2003 to 2004.

With the addition of Olivier Hanlan and Joe Rahon to the BC roster, by the beginning of the 2012-13 season, Donahue’s 3-point strategy became more workable. Guard Lonnie Jackson-who accounted for 57 outside made shots, shooting 39.9 percent, in the previous season-no longer existed as the only legitimate 3-point threat. Despite making a solid 35.3 percent of its total perimeter shots, the team still struggled with the issue that emerged in the previous season. Opposing players made an astounding 37.5 percent of their threes against BC, greatly contributing to Donahue’s second consecutive losing record, 16-17.

After three seasons of gradual decline, the final collapse came-necessitating, in the opinion of the athletic department, the firing of Donahue. The team finished the 2013-14 season with even more losses than two before, with an 8-24 record. The vast majority of Donahue and his squad’s 24 losses were correlated, once again, to those major problems that emerged within the past three years: inaccurate 3-point shooting, relative to that of competing teams, and shoddy perimeter defense. Over the course of the last five months, the BC team shot roughly 35.1 percent from beyond the arc, while the squad’s opponents made approximately 37.9 percent of their 3-point attempts. Aggregating the team’s 24 losses, BC standardly completed 34.8 percent of its 3-pointers each game, while the squad’s competitors made 38.9 percent of their perimeter shots on average. (Conversely, grouping the team’s eight victories, the BC squad scored 37.6 percent of its 3-point shots each game, while defeated teams’ perimeter shooters made only 32.4 percent of their 3-point attempts on average.)

For followers of the Donahue saga, and trackers of the statistics that define it, the possible reasons for the coach’s increased losses and the related decline in the effectiveness of the team’s outside shooting are varied. Certainly players’ struggles with injuries affected the situation-at least this past season. Jackson, who led the team in made 3-pointers during the two seasons before this most recent one, suffered a hamstring injury in the early goings and took an extended amount of time to return to form. Dennis Clifford, the team’s 7-foot center, who struggled with a knee injury, was sorely missed through the past season. BC suffered without his capability of drawing defenders inside and away from the arc. In the two games during which Clifford saw playing time, his teammates made 17 of 41 outside shots, or 41.5 percent of their attempted 3-pointers. Departures must have also compounded Donahue’s problem: the loss of three key offensive threats-not just 3-point threats-in Jackson, Paris, and Trapani, with the conclusion of the coach’s first season, was a large hit. Likewise, the transferring of veteran guard Matt Humphrey, who made 55 3-pointers during the 2011-12 season, must have taken a toll.

Perhaps the most costly developments during Donahue’s tenure were the missed recruiting chances. Although BC Athletics director Brad Bates assured the press that Donahue was “on to some great players” in the conference following the coach’s dismissal, the amount of local players who have slipped from BC’s grasp or beneath its radar and who could have contributed greatly, working in the system that Donahue employed, is large.

For example, 6-foot-5 Pat Connaughton, who was raised in Arlington, Mass. and attended St. John’s Prep, currently plays for Notre Dame and has a 36.8 career 3-point percentage, in addition to making 55.4 percent of his shots within the arc. Also, Jake Layman, who attended King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham, Mass., starts for Maryland and has scored 36.5 percent of his perimeter shots this past season, contributing to an 11.7 points per game average.

Regardless of what caused the decline in the performance of Donahue’s squads, the coach’s fall has been remarkable. In spite of the promise that accompanied his arrival, Donahue compiled a 54-76 record over four years with BC. During the span, the coach’s dependence on the 3-point shot negatively affected the outcome of many games. And as the losses accumulated, so too did the concerns that the coach would be unable to duplicate the successes he experienced at Cornell, when his team had the best 3-point shooting percentage in the nation.