Long-distance memories about the long-distance shot.
Wichita State and the three-pointer came together at the perfect time. It hired a new coach, open to new ideas as a 38-year-old in charge of a team for the first time. Waiting for him was a shooting guard ready to make the most of the new asset to the game.
That is the way it worked out in 1986-87, the first season for universal adoption of the three-point line. It didn’t quite start that way. In fact, nobody seems sure how the three-pointer debuted at WSU. It seemed to happen without much fanfare.
“No. 1, I did not know the three-point shot came in when I was at Wichita State,” former coach Eddie Fogler said. “No. 2, I can’t remember what we thought about it.”
The three-point arc became a permanent part of college basketball in the 1986-87 season and is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Initially mocked as a gimmick, it is now accepted as an entertaining part of the game that gives the little guy — players and teams — a chance. It started with a distance of 19 feet, 9 inches and moved to 20-9 for 2008-09 season and forced defenses to guard more space. Combined with the shot clock, it livened up a game often slowed by stalls and defenses determined to clog the lane.
WSU took advantage from the start.
In the intervening years, its three-point prowess rose and fell with the success of the team. Shocker fans learned to love the shot in Fogler’s seasons when it helped their team to two NCAA Tournament berths. The fearless shooting from outrageous distances by Jason Perez gave fans a reason to watch in tough times in the 1990s. When Mark Turgeon revived the program, he did it with the help of shooters such as Randy Burns, Aaron Hogg and Rob Kampman.
Current coach Gregg Marshall came to WSU in 2007, promising (and delivering) to shoot threes with great enthusiasm. He liked the rule in its debut season, when he worked as an assistant coach at Randolph-Macon.
“I remember when they implemented it,” Marshall said. “I thought it would open up the court and give shooters more of a chance to make an impact.”
It certainly worked in Wichita.
In 1986, Fogler inherited a WSU team coming off a 14-14 record under coach Gene Smithson, fired after the season. Junior Gary Cundiff averaged 2.9 points and took 30 shots in Smithson’s final season. Fogler’s arrival and the adoption of the bonus shot met in a perfect confluence for Cundiff, a 6-foot-2 guard. He made the first three of the season — Nov. 29, 1986 against Pacific in Levitt Arena — and went 4 for 4 in WSU’s second game, a win at Southwestern Louisiana.
“It really helped revive my career,” Cundiff said. “I was not going to be the guy that took you off the dribble.”
Neither Fogler nor Cundiff remember making landmark decisions about how to use the shot. They knew the math, that making threes could be a more efficient way to score than making two-pointers. Fogler insisted on good shots, regardless of distance. And he didn’t want players checking their feet to make sure they stood behind the line.
Some coaches — Indiana’s Bob Knight and Villanova’s Rollie Massimino — bashed the rule. UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian and Providence’s Rick Pitino embraced it. Fogler fell closer to the Tarkanian/Pitino camp.
“We realized that it was going to change the game,” Fogler said. “You had to figure out a way to use it without any data, without anybody else to look at.”
Paul Guffrovich, who joined the program in 1987-88, remembers Fogler’s simple philosophy applied to all shots.
“If you had an open shot, take it,” he said. “He wanted us to execute. You don’t worry about threes. You don’t worry about twos. Every time you have the ball, you do something good with it.”
That worked for the Shockers in 1986-87. They finished second in the MVC in three-point shooting at 43.3 percent. Cundiff started all 33 games, averaged 7.7 points and finished second in the MVC by making 47.8 percent of his threes. He wasn’t WSU only shooter. Joe Griffin and Dwight Praylow both shot better than 38 percent from behind the arc. Even 6-foot-10 Sasha Radunovich made 10 threes.
For anyone slow to catch on, the Shockers highlighted the shot’s importance by making 8 of 10 in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game, a 79-75 overtime win at Tulsa. Griffin and Cundiff both went 3 for 3 and Cundiff scored 17 points to return WSU to the NCAA Tournament.
“Coach Fogler was big on stats and numbers,” Cundiff said. “If you were shooting it well, he wanted you to shoot it. I had a green light.”
Fogler’s early group of shooters remain some of the best at WSU. Griffin made 48.4 percent of his threes in 1987-88, the No. 2 season accuracy at WSU. Cundiff’s 1986-87 accuracy ranks third. Dwight Praylow made 44.8 percent of his threes in three seasons with the arc, second on WSU’s career list. Guffrovich made 43.4 percent of his threes for his career, ranking fifth.
Cundiff is a special case. He made 3 of 5 threes as a freshman in 1982-83, when the Valley used the shot as an experiment in select games. As a senior, he made 44 of 92, and his career accuracy — two seasons in a career extended by a redshirt season — ranks first at 48.5 percent.
Several NCAA conferences tested the shot, with the Southern Conference first in 1980-81 at a distance of 22 feet. Western Carolina’s Ronnie Carr is credited with the first three, on Nov. 29, 1980 against Middle Tennessee State. In 1982-83, the ACC went with a distance of 17 feet, 9 inches. The MVC went with 19-9, giving Shocker fans a chance to watch guard Aubrey Sherrod, regarded as one of the program finest shooters, bomb away in 20 games. He made 23 of 59 threes (39 percent) to rank ninth in the MVC.
For WSU, the experiment hit its peak when Sherrod made 5 of 8 threes and scored 27 points in an 84-81 win at Tulsa on Feb. 19, 1983.
“We got a little taste of it,” Cundiff said. “Then it went away.”
When it came back, Fogler’s teams used it economically. Guffrovich started to expand the shot’s limits early in the 1987-88 season. He made 6 of 7 in a win over Grambling State, then a record for makes and one short of the record for attempts.
“It was there and you became very aware of it, that it could change a game quick,” he said. “I think it’s great. Over the years, finesse was going out of the game. Now there’s a need again.”
Today’s Shockers don’t know the game without the familiar arc painted on the court. They watch old games and are glad to play in the modern era.
“It would be more bully basketball than anything,” senior guard David Kyles said. “It’s easy to clog up the paint. You have to have outside threes to stretch out the defense.”
Kyles is part of Marshall’s recruiting efforts that returned the three-pointer to prominence at WSU. Last season’s team ranks first at WSU for threes made (260) and attempted (733) in a season. This group of Shockers, 225 of 604 entering the NCAA Tournament, ranks fifth, three behind Marshall’s 2009-10 team.
As promised, Marshall’s team shoot a lot of threes and big victories followed. His MVC champions feature Joe Ragland, shooting 50 percent from three, and Ben Smith, making 39 percent. Marshall’s lineup can put four shooters on the floor surrounding center Garrett Stutz and cause matchup problems for defenses.
“Everybody likes the three-pointer,” WSU senior Toure Murry said.
At WSU, the 25th anniversary celebration of the three is one to love.