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‘Trying to fix something that was not broken’: Another move of the NAIA 3-point line sees mixed results

Overall, long-distance shooting statistics have barely deviated from prior seasons, but on a case-by-case basis, the change has had a dramatic effect.

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Dakota Wesleyan's Sawyer Schultz attempts a 3-pointer during a game on Jan. 26, 2022 at the Corn Palace. The blue college 3-point line at the Corn Palace is at just beyond 22 feet, while the high school line (shown here in black), is at 19 feet, 9 inches and was being used as recently as a decade ago in college basketball.
Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL — Prior to the 2021-22 season, the NAIA approved pushing back the 3-point line by nearly a foot and a half, from its previous length of 20 feet, 9 inches to 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches, and the impact — both real and perceived — has been mixed.

The move — which applies to both men and women — brings the NAIA in line with NCAA college basketball, along with the international rules. Overall, NAIA statistics such as 3-point attempts, makes and percentage are down on average, but only slightly. However, on a team-by-team basis, the results of the change have varied wildly.

Last season, the 3-point field goal percentage for the Great Plains Athletic Conference was 35.6% for the men and 31.9% for the women. Through Feb. 17, this season’s marks stand at 36.2% and 31.4%, respectively. In both the men's and women's games, GPAC schools are taking fewer 3-pointers, with the men collectively down by about two attempts per game and the women down by 1.3 attempts per game, according to a Mitchell Republic analysis of statistical data this season.

"I don't think there's been a huge difference in percentage because I think we're at about where we've been the last few years. A lot of us shot threes from well beyond the old line anyway,” explained Briar Cliff men’s basketball coach Mark Svagera in January.

On the men’s side, Dakota Wesleyan is a perfect example of a program that has barely seen a change in production. The Tigers have identical 35.1% marks over the past two seasons and are averaging 0.5 more makes per game on 1.2 more attempts.

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“The line is deeper and it's harder,” DWU head coach Matt Wilber said. “We just have to keep moving with it and take the open ones that come."

Elsewhere in the conference, Svagera’s Briar Cliff is one of two programs — Concordia being the other — which has cut its attempts by at least 20% from last season, but the Chargers have increased their 3-point percentage by more than 2.3% to 40%, the second-best nationally in the NAIA. Jamestown (39.2%) and Northwestern College (39%) aren’t far behind at fifth and sixth nationally in 3-point percentage, and Midland has the fourth-most makes (302) in the country.

In the GPAC men’s ranks, no team has lowered its percentage by more than 3.6% (Mount Marty) or increased it by more than 2.7% (Doane and Morningside) from 2020-21.

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The blue college 3-point line at the Corn Palace is at just beyond 22 feet, while the high school line (shown here in black), is at 19 feet, 9 inches and was being used as recently as a decade ago in college basketball.
Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic

The women’s side follows a similar pattern, with one major deviation in how DWU has attacked it.

DWU has slashed its attempts per game from a season ago (19) by nearly one-third to a GPAC-low 13.2 attempts per game, with a dip in shooting percentage of 7% (33.4% to 26.4%), leading to three fewer made triples per game on average.

“I think moving the 3-point line back in women's basketball was one of the dumbest things they've ever decided to do,” said DWU women’s basketball coach Jason Christensen in October. “... I know they said they did that to open up the inside or whatever, but they're trying to fix something that was not broken.”

That’s by far the most significant decrease for any GPAC women’s program from a season ago. Northwestern College (which experienced a coaching change after last season), shoots nearly 25% fewer 3-pointers than a season ago and makes two fewer perimeter shots per game, but its percentage has increased slightly from last season. Overall, the Tiger women haven't lacked a scoring punch with their 3-point shooting change, scoring 70.6 points per game this season, ahead of the 69.4 points per game clip from 2020-21.

“I don’t think it’s affected women’s basketball, in general,” said Briar Cliff women’s basketball coach Brita Hand. “I think we were already shooting threes back there (behind the new line), the biggest difference is you don’t see many kids shooting 3 feet behind the line anymore.”

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Doane has embraced the change more so than any of its conference counterparts, increasing its attempts by nearly 24% while also boosting its percentage by 2.26%.

“We’re starting to get more used to it, but you just have to practice. It’s brand new for everybody else, too, so there are no excuses,” said Doane women’s basketball coach Ryan Baumgartner. “You have to make shots. It’s gone both ways, though. It’s opened up the court, as well, but it has made it a little bit harder, so it’s a give-and-take.”

Morningside, which sits atop the GPAC standings, pairs efficiency with volume as well as anyone in the county, ranking third nationally in both 3-point makes (293) and percentage (37.2%).

Svagera said there has been one other notable effect on teams, particularly in how they must defend opposing offenses. In the usually offensively talented GPAC, that creates a challenge.

"It just spreads you out so much and so far and it makes defense that much harder," he said. "It's hard enough to play defense in this league to begin with because there's so many skilled offenses and talented guards. There's so many teams that move the ball well. You really have to adjust, even within the season, what our defensive philosophy is, as far as playing defense around the 3-point line."

If there's any solace for defensive-minded coaches, it seems unlikely that the college 3-point distance will be moving any further out anytime soon. The next frontier would be the NBA 3-point line, which is located at 23 feet, 9 inches at the top of the arc, which is where the line has been located since 1997.

Dierks covers prep and collegiate athletics across the Mitchell Republic's coverage region area, focusing on Mitchell High School football and boys basketball and area high school football, volleyball and basketball, as well as Dakota Wesleyan women's basketball. He was also the lead on the Mitchell Republic Gridiron Spotlight, producing video and providing live play-by-play for the traveling weekly prep football broadcast during its first season in the fall of 2021. Dierks is a Mitchell native who graduated from South Dakota State University with his bachelor's degree in journalism in May 2020. He joined the Mitchell Republic sports staff in August 2021. He can be reached at ldierks@mitchellrepublic.com and found on Twitter at @LDierksy.
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