Remember the 2011 National Championship game between Butler and UConn? It was a 53-41 slogfest. Butler shot just 18 percent from the field. UConn shot 1-for-11 from deep. It was a hideous offensive game, basically the worst national championship anybody can recall.
That game was played in Houston's NRG Stadium, home of the Texans. By itself, it would just be a bad game. But since 2002, 16 college basketball games have been played in that dome, and the vast majority of them have featured horrendous shooting, apparently triggered by the depth perception difficulty caused by the stadium's unsettling backdrop. And in a few days, the national championship will be held there again.
The definitive analysis of this phenomenon was done by Ken Pomeroy last season, who found it highly likely that teams were, in fact, affected by the unique shooting backdrop provided by the dome. And he did that analysis before last year's Elite Eight game where Gonzaga, normally a 40.0 percent three-point shooting team, hit just 2-of-10 attempts from beyond the arc.
Games like last year's regional final were played with an enormous black curtain behind both baskets:
Photo credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images
Whereas games like the 2011 Final Four and national championship were played with the full expanse of the dome behind the hoop:
Photo credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images
Shooting has been fine in games held in equally expansive domes, like 2014 host AT&T stadium in Dallas, and 2015 host Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. But curtain or not, NRG leads to bad shooting. In the 16 games in the building, teams are shooting just 188-for-582 from beyond the arc, or 32.3 percent. If we pretended all 32 of the single-team performances in those 16 games were by the same team, that team would be 275th in college basketball in three-point shooting.
But this isn't an example of the stadium simply hosting a bunch of teams who are bad at shooting. Pomeroy calculated the overall shooting percentage of the 30 teams, who played in the dome before last year's South regional final at over 36 percent. NRG makes good shooting teams shoot poorly.
In 24 of the 32 performances in the dome -- three-quarters of them! -- a team shot worse than its season average from three. In eight of those 32 games -- a quarter of them! -- a team would have hit at least two more threes if they had merely shot their season average.
Yes, it's possible that it's just a bad run of luck. And players have been fine shooting in other domes with similar backdrops. But 16 games and 582 threes are quite a lot of games and threes for the poor shooting in NRG to be a coincidence.
Knowing what we know about the place the NCAA Tournament's final is being held and the teams remaining, it would be hard for me to pick against North Carolina. Not only are they the last remaining No. 1 seed and not only are they playing some of their best basketball of the year as the calendar turns to April, they're not a team that relies on shooting. Just 26.8 of their attempts are threes, which puts them in the bottom 20 in college basketball.
They already shoot poorly, just 32.1 percent from the field, slightly worse than teams tend to shoot in NRG. Although they uncharacteristically lit it up from deep against Indiana, going 11-from-20 from beyond the arc, they hit less than a third of their threes in each of their other three tournament wins. Brice Johnson dominates inside and and lead guard Marcus Paige doesn't really rely on the deep ball to succeed. And they're playing against a Syracuse zone that allows a poor percentage on three-point shots.
The last team to win a title in Houston was a UConn team that shot a dismal 32.9 percent from three. They faced off against a much better shooting Butler team. Butler couldn't hit anything, and UConn played its regular game. Five years later, we have another team whose hypothetical road to the national championship game already didn't depend on shooting, and now they're playing in a dome that makes everybody shoot poorly. That's a bonus for North Carolina.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, Villanova and Oklahoma both rely heavily on the three-ball. Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart are all capable of knocking down threes. They've hit 10 threes in two of their tournament games, and now they're playing in a dome that's not conducive to shooting.
And Oklahoma is possibly the best shooting team in the nation. They hit 42.8 percent of their threes, second-best in college basketball, and are led by Buddy Hield, who is the best college shooter since Steph Curry. Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard also shoot 40 percent from deep. They've hit at least 10 threes in three of their four tournament games, and now they're playing in a dome that's not conducive to shooting.
Most basketball arenas seem to have no significant affect on quality of play. It's kinda ridiculous that the NCAA chose to play its most important basketball games of the season in one of the few venues that has a long and proven history of making basketball worse. Hopefully, the poor shooting in NRG has just been a surprisingly long coincidence, but if not, the power holders in college basketball are forcing teams that have earned Final Four slots on the strength of shooting to play in a place where shooting is hard.
Then again, maybe Buddy Hield is too good to be bothered by any backdrop.