Story by Chris Graham
Basketball coaches are assumed to prefer layups and short and medium-range jumpers to shots from behind the three-point arc that offer high reward in terms of the amount of points that can be scored per basket but at considerable risk to one’s offensive efficiency.
And if you’re looking at Dave Leitao, who came to Virginia with the reputation of being a coach who puts a high premium on defense and rebounding, it would be supposed by observers that he would be just as conservative as anybody else in the coaching business, if not more so.
So how is it, then, that Leitao has developed in two-plus seasons in Charlottesville a program that shoots threes at a Rick Pitino clip and is on the lookout for more in the way of the same?
“We’re a good shooting team – and we took 32 today because 32 was the number that presented itself because they played a lot of zone,” Leitao said after his Cavs made 16 of their 32 three-point attempts in a 94-52 win over Northwestern last week.
“I’m not afraid to do that – because we can make them. We shot 50 percent while taking that many. It’s only a bad thing to take over 30 if you’re not making too many. And as long as we’re taking them in rhythm and coming off of something, we’re not just shooting it because it’s there, then I keep encouraging guys to do that,” Leitao said.
In part the transformation of Leitao was a matter of the roster that he inherited from Pete Gillen that was laden with shooters on the one hand and almost devoid of post scorers on the other. But Leitao says now that he prefers the perimeter game to the point that he has adapted his recruiting strategy.
“The way that I’ve probably changed is that I didn’t ever consider myself a guy like a Rick Pitino at Providence or now at Louisville, guys like that that were primarily about the three-point shot. But because we have a number of guys that can shoot it, because we’re playing the kind of motion offense that presents itself with some openings on the perimeter, we’ve actually started to look recruitingwise that way at guys who can shoot the ball, and their value to the team,” Leitao said.
The theory on teams that shoot the three as their point of focus on offense is that they can be prone to shooting slumps that can kill them in a game where they’re drawing more iron than they are tickling the twine. To date in 2007-2008, though, Virginia has not had that issue surface – the ‘Hoos are shooting 44 percent from three-point range as a team and is averaging nearly 11 threes made per game.
“They’ve been doing that all year, right? I mean, those guys have been shooting it all year pretty much – and last year, too. So we know who they are,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said after last week’s game.
To Carmody, it’s not just that Virginia shoots the ball well from outside the arc – it’s that the Cavs have so many guys who can shoot the ball well from outside the arc.
“If it’s just one guy, you can sort of mark him a little bit differently. But they spread it around nicely, and different guys are hitting it, and it’s just too much for you,” Carmody said.
The lowest shooting percentage from three-point range of the seven Virginia players who have made at least one three this year is the 38.5 percent clip of freshman guard Jeff Jones. Junior swingman Mamadi Diane is hitting an otherworldly 57.6 percent (19-of-33) through seven games, and sophomore guard Calvin Baker is at 52.2 percent (12-of-23).
Leitao thinks having an array of sharpshooters in the program leads to a sort of feeding frenzy “where if a guy like Calvin Baker is a pretty good shooter, he becomes a better shooter because he’s around shooters every single day.”
“And they work at it. That’s one thing – they really do work at it. They spend a lot of time in the gym shooting, and therefore just like rebounding is important to me, shooting has become that important where we do it every single day and spend a specific amount of time practicing shooting game shots,” Leitao said.
Diane agrees with the idea that good shooting can become contagious.
“It gets like that. Everybody’s running out to those open spots and trying to get out there – and it’s tough to guard because just about everybody out there on the floor for us can shoot threes,” Diane said.
Baker, for his part, thinks that having a coach like Leitao who admonishes his players when they don’t take open threes is the key to the whole operation.
“That means a lot to us – because Coach Leitao can give you a lot of confidence. And when you have confidence from your head coach and your teammates, everything just seems to flow in the right place,” Baker said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.