Shot quality and shot making in the NCAA Tournament

Synergy Sports is adding two new metrics to help coaches and scouts develop winning team strategies – let’s explore what they can tell us about this year’s Sweet 16 teams.


Shot selection is at the crux of every conflict in basketball. We want to set up our shooters to take shots that they can make and force the other team’s shooters to attempt more difficult ones. Sets, actions, plays…schemes, principles, philosophies…that’s what it’s all about! Shot selection.

Of course, coaches already know that shot selection is fundamental to their teams’ success. They have known that since the beginning. The late, great, coaching legend Dean Smith was weaving threads of shot selection lessons into the fabric of his practices at North Carolina 40 years ago.

“To encourage the taking of good shots, we sometimes scrimmaged without keeping score on the board. I secretly gave the score to a manager, and all the scoring was based on shot selection. A great shot (layup), even if it didn’t go in, was worth three points; a good shot, even if it didn’t fall, was two points; for a shot that was merely acceptable because of the shot clock winding down, one point. If a player made a tough three-point shot that shouldn’t have been taken, zero points…We defined a good shot as one the shooter could make most of the time…”

We’ve tried to capture the spirit of Coach Smith’s process-based shot selection scoreboard with our new metric Synergy Shot Quality (SSQ). SSQ utilizes the contextual information that Synergy collects about every play we watch to determine the probability that a league-average shooter would make a shot in the same situation.

For example, an open, spot-up, catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the top of the key was converted about 38% of the time last season in Division I; so, the SSQ for that kind of shot would be estimated at 38% x 3 points or 1.14 points per shot. On the other hand, an off-the-dribble 19-foot jumper created in isolation on the wing was less likely to go in, only splashing through about 35% of the time (multiplied by 2 points) for an equivalent SSQ of 0.70 points per shot.

We’ll flesh out some more of the technical details behind our development of SSQ in subsequent posts, but – suffice to say for now – the general rule of thumb is that you want to have high SSQ on offense and low SSQ on defense. You want to get good shots for your team and force your opponent to take tough ones. And we can look at the teams who will be in the Sweet 16 this weekend to measure how successful this winning formula has been for them this season.

Half of the teams in the Sweet 16 – including the remaining top seeds, Gonzaga, Arizona, and Kansas – had better-than-average SSQ on both ends of the floor during the regular season. In contrast, teams who have already been eliminated from the tournament were less likely to have achieved that benchmark, only 37% did so. Even fewer of the non-tourney teams, less than 20% of them, had better-than-average SSQ on both ends.

We can check out where all the Sweet 16 teams line up by SSQ on offense and on defense in the next chart.

Once again, we see those same 8 teams in the upper righthand corner – these were the teams that were taking high quality shots on offense and forcing low quality shots on defense during the regular season.

UCLA stands out from the Sweet 16 crowd on this chart as the one team that had well below-average SSQ. Nearly one-third of their shots were midrange jumpers this season (32%, 9th-most in Division I). But, remember, SSQ is an attempt to characterize the probability that an average shooter would make a particular shot. Obviously, not every player has the same strengths and weaknesses and some teams may have a special knack for making shots that most other teams don’t. UCLA is like that.

We can characterize the difference between a team’s observed shooting percentages (ie. points per shot) and it’s shot quality (ie. expected points per shot) using a second metric we’re calling Synergy Shot Making (SSM). Check out UCLA’s shot making from the regular season.

Although UCLA has taken a relatively large proportion of low quality shots – they also do a better job making those shots than most other teams could (as indicated by their positive SSM). In total, 13 of the Sweet 16 teams had plus shot making this year. Notably, top seeds Arizona, Kansas, and (especially) Gonzaga were near the top of the heap for SSM along with UCLA.

To put things into perspective, we can ballpark the magnitude of the advantage created by these seemingly small margins in average shot quality. How many points does that add to an offense over the course of a season? And how many extra wins could it deliver?

With SSQ that was 0.07 points per shot better than average on offense and 0.01 points per shot better (lower) than average on defense, Arizona added more points from shot quality than any other Division I team this season (+158). With an average margin of victory of +18 points per game, this shot quality advantage didn’t translate to a huge win increase (+1.4 wins added), because they didn’t “need” the help (at least according to the Pythagorean win percentage formula). However, we see that Texas Tech – who played in more closely contested games – earned 2 extra wins from their shot quality advantage. Teams like Alabama and Saint Joseph’s got even more of a boost from their shot quality edge – adding 4 extra wins each (not shown in the table).

We can see that a sound approach to shot selection can help a team thrive in the regular season and get it into position for postseason success. But to make a deep run in the tournament, a team will need good fortune as well.

We can look at changes in SSQ and SSM from the regular season to the first two rounds of the Tournament to see which team’s performances were better than expected.

For 13 of the Sweet 16 teams, SSQ remained the same or decreased during the first two rounds of the tournament relative to their regular season averages. This makes sense as the competition in the tournament is stiffer than a typical regular season opponent and teams would tend to find it more difficult to get easy looks against better defenses. On the other hand, 11 of the Sweet 16 teams had better shot making in the first two games of the tournament than they did during the regular season. For example 15-seed Saint Peter’s had SSM of -0.06 points per shot during the regular season but swung to +0.06 during their tourney games (an increase of +0.12). That’s an extra 6 or 7 points per game!

In these pressure-cooker situations, having tough shot makers can be key.

By filtering our chart to look at only those players with at least 250 FGA, we end up finding a lot of plus-shot makers here. Even accounting for that imbalance, players from the Sweet 16 teams are overrepresented on the top half of the chart with only a few of the high-usage players from these teams falling into the minus-shot maker zone. Players like Johnny Juzang and Kameron McGusty are taking difficult shots and making more than their peers. Guys like Zach Edey and Armando Bacot are taking higher percentage shots and having a lot of success converting them.

Of course, the tournament wouldn’t be what it is without some highlight reel shots. Buzzer beaters, heat checks, trick shots – some of the most fun shots to watch are those low-quality shots that end up going in. We’re calling any attempt with an SSQ of 0.75 expected points or less a “TUFF” shot. And these are the leaders for TUFF shots made after the first weekend.

Some of the best low-seeded stories – no. 10 Miami, no. 11 Iowa State, no. 11 Michigan – are well represented here, showing again that special performances can fuel surprising Sweet 16 runs. Our tough-shot specialists Juzang and McGusty are here again as well.

We’ll be tracking SSQ and SSM for the rest of the tournament. Check back soon for a more detailed explanation of how SSQ is calculated for each shot.



The development of the Synergy Shot Quality and Synergy Shot Making metrics was led by Alexander Ekkel. Alex is building tools to help coaches, scouts, and players find winning team strategies as part of Synergy’s Analytics and Insights Team.


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