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Virginia men's hoops team turns to technology to improve shooting

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Posted: Wednesday, December 25, 2013 6:00 am | Updated: 3:02 pm, Wed Jul 9, 2014.

Mounted on a wall near one of the baskets inside of the Virginia practice gym is an 18 by 22-inch black box.

Inside of the box is a camera, a computer and a speaker.

The camera records multiple images of a shot’s flight pattern. The computer, in real time, then calculates the shot’s arc. The speaker, in an automated voice — similar to the one you hear on a GPS device — spits out a number loud enough for the player who is shooting it to hear.

That number, which is usually in the 40s, is the degree of arc on the shot. An optimal arc is considered 45 degrees.

As players go through their shooting drills, they can adjust their arcs based on what the voice is telling him.

Yes, basketball has certainly come a long way since Dr. James Naismith hung up those peach baskets.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett and his players are taking advantage of the latest in technology with their use of Noah’s Arc — a training mechanism that was invented by a former physics teacher, a software developer and a rocket scientist.

Yeah, you read that correctly — a rocket scientist.

“As a coach, you’re always saying, ‘Get some arc, get some arc,’” Bennett said. “You say that, but after a while [the players] shut you out.

“With this, when they’re shooting, it gives them audio feedback every time they shoot. It just kind of makes them focus on getting the right arc and getting a repeatable stroke. I like that.”

So do Bennett’s players.

“It helps with your consistency,” said senior guard Joe Harris, who has typically used the device to tinker with his stroke in the offseason, “because you have somebody telling you whether you’re shooting it lower or higher. It’s good to try and gauge yourself and just try and be as consistent as possible.”

Bennett started using Noah’s Arc when he was coaching at Washington State. He ordered his first at Virginia in 2011. In October, he purchased a mobile version of the device, which is able to measure shots taken from anywhere on the floor.

The machine was dreamed up 12 years ago by Alan Marty, a former physics professor who wanted a better way to teach his daughter the importance of shooting with the proper arc.

Marty brought in fellow church members and weekend basketball players Tom Edwards and Ridge McGhee. Edwards happened to work for NASA and knew a thing or two about tracking moving objects. McGhee was a computer vision consultant. Before long, they had a prototype.

Over the next several months, the men — who would team up with CEO John Carter — studied the jump shots of some of the greatest shooters in the history of the game — including Chris Mullin, Reggie Miller and Ray Allen — and determined that the ideal arc had an entry angle of 45 degrees.

Today, Noah’s Arc is used by teams at the high school, college and NBA level.

LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Allen are big proponents of Noah.

"That machine is great," said Wade, during an interview with ESPN.com last February. "It’s great for me and it’s great for other guys to hear when you’re making your shots what number you’re at. You can feel it.”

Bennett is the first Division I college coach to endorse the product.

“We’re a very picky company as far as somebody we want to associate our name with,” Carter said, “and Coach Bennett is just such a great guy, a high-integrity guy, and also a great shooting coach because he was a great shooter himself.”

Still is.

Bennett can often be found on the team’s John Paul Jones Arena practice court using Noah’s Arc.

“I’ll just come down here and mess around with it,” said Bennett, prior to a recent practice. “It’s almost addicting. It kind of adds a good way to train and to really dial in your shot with the most consistent arc, shot after shot.”

One of Virginia’s most interesting case studies is guard Malcolm Brogdon, who, coming out of high school, had one of the more flat shots you’ll ever see.

Think Vinnie Johnson, Detroit Pistons, circa 1989.

As a freshman, Brogdon’s shot consistently registered in the 39-degree range when he shot 40 percent from the field, 32 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from free-throw line.

While sitting out last season with a foot injury, Brogdon made a concerted effort to get more arc on his shot and says he’s now in the 42- to 43-degree range.

So far this season, there has been noticeable improvement. Brogdon has shot 41 percent from the field, 37 percent from 3 and 91 percent from the line.

Brogdon says Bennett and assistant coach Ritchie McKay have helped him a ton, but he also gives Noah’s Arc a lot of the credit for the improvement.

“It was huge for me,” Brogdon said. “When I came in [from high school], that was really one of the blessings I didn’t even see when I was recruited here. I came in and Coach Bennett immediately put me on the Noah’s Arc and it’s really helped my arc since.

“That’s really been one of the changes to the mechanics of my shot since I’ve been here, and it’s really paid off.”

Why is arc so important?

“When your shot is flatter, there’s less of a chance for the ball to go in and less room for error,” Brogdon explained. “When the ball’s higher, you can get more bounces in between the rim, you have more space that the ball can go through the rim.”

While shooting with the proper arc is a major fundamental, there is such a thing as having too much arc. Interestingly, the Noah’s Arc brain trust discovered that having too much arc is actually just as detrimental as not having enough. They say the key is to build the muscle memory so you can consistently shoot as closely as possible to the optimal 45 degree arc.

“Some of our biggest success stories is with players lowering their arc, which is counterintuitive for a lot of people,” Carter said. “That’s a really important concept to understand.”

Bennett, for one, has come to realize that he had too much arc on his free throws during his playing days. While he is college basketball’s all-time 3-point percentage leader at 49.7 percent, he was always frustrated that he could never shoot higher than 85.9 percent from the line.

What would Bennett have been able to shoot if he had Noah’s Arc back in the day?

“Who knows,” he said, smiling.

Harris has been trying to lower the arc on his free throws for some time.

“I was shooting my free throws around like 51, so I tried to focus more on [decreasing it],” said Harris, who has struggled at the line this season but was 6 of 7 in the win over Norfolk State on Monday. “I still need to get it down to between 43 and 47, but I lowered it a little bit. I try and get it around 48 consistently.

“If you’re shooting it at 51, 52, 53 degrees, your margin for error is not the same that it would be if you were shooting it 43 to 47.”

The second important variable that Noah measures and gives instant feedback on is the depth of the shot. Believe it or not, the correct depth is not the center of the rim. Rather, it’s two inches inches past the center — or 11 inches past the front of the rim.

Noah spits out a number that’s typically in the 7-15 range, lettings players know if they are too long or too short with their shot.

Carter and his cohorts use the catchy phrase “45 steep and 11 deep" in describing the ideal shot.

According to Carter, only 50 percent of players at the college level are shooting with the correct arc and depth. And at the high school level, Carter says that number dips to less than 9 percent.

Carter says some players are losing as much as 25 percentage points from the free-throw line just because they aren’t shooting the ball deep enough in the basket.  

“Typically, players are missing shots short, as a general rule,” he said.

Carter added: “I have personally tested thousands of players at every level of basketball, and every great shooter shoots the ball deep in the basket.”

A cool feature of Noah is that when practice is over Virginia players use an app on their smartphones to see how they performed. The app will tell players what their average arc or average depth was.

UVa sophomore Justin Anderson is a big Noah fan.

“I use it every day — either for free throws or when Coach Bennett gets us and pulls us to the side and has us shoot on it,” Anderson said. “I love it.

“It gets your shot consistent. You want to get it at a 45-degree arc. So when you hear it telling you 43 or 45, you’re like ‘Oh, perfect. Boom!’ You see it going and you tell yourself, ‘Ok let me continue to get [45].’”

Virginia players like the fact they are using the same gadget as many of their idols.

“LeBron James and Dwayne Wade joke about it a lot,” said Anderson, recalling a story Carter told the team when he made a visit to Charlottesville recently. “They walk past each other and are like, ‘Hey 45’ when they’re just getting extra shots up.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a 45 for sure,’ just joking around with each other.”

Added Virginia sophomore Anthony Gill: “If the people who are at the highest level that we want to get to use it, we can use it, too. I get on there and use it for my free throws, especially because I struggle with my free throws.”

For basketball-crazed parents who are already thinking about Noah’s Arc for next Christmas, well, start saving your money.

The wall-mounted unit costs $4,600, while the mobile version goes for $5,600.

Clearly, Bennett feels his program is getting its money’s worth.

When he talks about Noah, he has the kind of excitement you’d expect to see from a kid opening a present on Christmas morning.

Bennett, whose own arc consistently registers between 45 and 46, says the instant feedback is the machine’s greatest benefit.

“[Players] can say, ‘Ah, that’s what the right arc feels like,’” Bennett said. “Over time, just like any habit, after hundreds and hundreds of shots, you can slowly bring it up.

“It gives you a better chance to make it. You shoot a flat shot, the ball doesn’t have as much of a chance. You start lifting it up, the rim opens up. It doesn’t mess [up] anything with your form. It just makes you figure what [the best arc] is.”

Bennett added: “I like it. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but it’s a good teaching tool.”

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