Iverson Molinar attempted four or more 3-point shots in seven of Mississippi State’s first nine games.
The junior point guard even tried seven or more 3s in three straight contests — seven against Lamar, 11 against Minnesota and seven against Colorado State.
Since that final game, a loss to the Rams in Fort Worth, Texas, Molinar hasn’t attempted four triples in a single contest. He’s gone five games and counting with three or fewer 3-point attempts. Against Ole Miss on Saturday in Oxford, he took just one shot from beyond the arc.
Molinar, touted as the Bulldogs’ best returning player, seems to have lost confidence in his 3-point stroke. He is 7 for his last 28 from deep and has made just 17 of 59 (28.8 percent) on the season. He’s made three 3s in a game just once this year.
Undoubtedly, Molinar is struggling from deep. But he’s finding alternative ways to produce for Mississippi State.
As a junior, the Panama City native has stepped up his game in several key areas. Molinar has made a jump in his 2-point shooting. He’s become a better passer while turning the ball over less often. He’s getting fouled more often and has become a better free-throw shooter.
So while Molinar’s 3-ball is under repair, the Bulldogs must hope their star guard’s improvements will make up for it.
Last season, as a sophomore, Molinar shot 43.6 percent from 3-point range.
He knocked down 44 of his 101 attempts on the season, averaging a little over three 3s per contest. Molinar never took more than seven triples in a game. Both times he took seven, he made five of them.
His 3-point accuracy put him among the top 100 players in college basketball in the category. And Molinar seemed poised for improvement heading into his junior season.
“I think that Iverson’s a better shooter than he was a year ago, which is saying something because he shot 44 percent,” head coach Ben Howland said Oct. 28.
Molinar had every reason to prove Howland right. But he hasn’t yet.
He started his junior season by making just four of his first 15 triples. Molinar was 1 for 3 against Louisville and 2 for 6 against Richmond before his most prolific game, going 3 for 7 against Lamar on Dec. 2.
But he shot just 2 for 11 against Minnesota three days later, with the Golden Gophers almost inviting him to shoot — a strategy that paid off. Molinar — who played 39 minutes — tied the game on a late and-one layup, but he missed the tying 3-pointer in the final seconds of an 81-76 Minnesota victory.
“That’s the only thing that he really did poorly tonight: shooting from 3,” Howland said after the game. “He’s a much better shooter than that, but I probably had to play him too many minutes.”
After going 1 for 7 from deep as the Bulldogs blew a lead to Colorado State, Molinar’s 3-point attempts practically disappeared. He took two against Georgia State, three against Furman and two more against Winthrop and Arkansas before missing his only attempt Saturday.
But despite Molinar’s 3-point woes, the junior is still just as efficient a scorer as he was last season.
He leads Mississippi State with 16.8 points per game in almost the exact same amount of playing time as last year, when he led the team with 16.7 points per contest.
And he’s taking fewer shots in the process. Molinar averaged 12.8 field goal attempts last season, and that number is down to 12.4 this year.
That’s because he’s significantly improved his 2-point shooting, making the jump from 49.3 percent to 55.3 percent inside the arc. He has become more judicious with his 2-point attempts: Molinar took 10 or more (twice, as many as 18) 2s in half of his first 14 games last year. Through 14 games this season, he’s done that just twice.
Part of the reason Molinar is taking fewer 2s is because he’s taking more 3s, a tradeoff that hasn’t exactly paid off. But with the rate the junior is getting to the foul line and converting there, it hasn’t mattered all that much.
Molinar has already taken 65 free throws this season, nearly one foul shot per game above his average last season. He shot 80.4 percent at the line last year and has upped that to 89.2 percent, the 23rd-best mark in the country.
So even without a dependable stroke from deep, Molinar has the tools to be just as efficient a scorer as he has been.
And he’s become an even better passer in his third year of college.
As the Bulldogs’ primary point guard and playing more than 32 minutes a game, it’s no surprise Molinar has again been asked to be Mississippi State’s primary distributor.
This season, he’s taken on that role better than ever before. Molinar averaged 1.7 assists per game as a freshman and 2.3 as a sophomore; his numbers from the current season surpass both years combined.
The junior is dishing out 4.3 assists per contest, posting an assist rate of 26.7 percent that ranks in the top 150 in the nation. He has had two or more assists in every game and a season-high seven Nov. 27 against Richmond. Only one other player — guard Shakeel Moore — even averages two assists per game for Mississippi State.
Molinar has improved his passing while cutting down on turnovers, a key combination for any ball-handling guard. Last year, his 16.4 percent turnover rate topped his assist rate by 0.5 percent; this year, the turnover rate is down to 12.1 percent. With just 1.6 turnovers per game, Molinar’s assist-to-turnover ratio is a strong 2.6 to 1.
It’s one of the improvements Mississippi State’s top scorer has made despite his shooting woes and a sign of the offensive progression the Bulldogs needed from the junior.
Until Molinar’s 3-point shot returns, he won’t be the player Howland previously envisioned. But if and when that touch does come back, Molinar has the tools to be one of the Southeastern Conference’s best players.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.