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No Passing Fancies

Some sweet passing ACC teams

Duke guard Tre Jones (3) looks for help as Hartford forward George Blagojevic (4) defends in the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., on December 5, 2018.
Duke guard Tre Jones (3) looks for help as Hartford forward George Blagojevic (4) defends in the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., on December 5, 2018.
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

You might expect that the more judiciously a team handles the ball, the more effectively teammates feed each other for baskets, the better their offenses will operate.

That depends.

Certainly it was true for Notre Dame in 2020, which easily led the ACC with assists leading to a basket on better than 62 percent of its scores, and to a significant but lesser extent for Virginia Tech and Syracuse.

Yet, of the four teams that finished first or second during the regular season (FSU, Duke, Louisville, UVa), three were in the bottom six in the ACC in what might be called assist efficiency. Of that group, all but Virginia posted the conference’s top team field goal percentages.

Florida State, as is customary, didn’t even match its assists to its turnovers (409-411).

Of course all sorts of mitigating factors come into play to complicate this picture.

Some teams stress set plays more than others. Some have players who are better able to create off the dribble, as the cliché goes. (Or, to use another cliché, to put the ball on the floor.)

Some units with more adept playmakers get into scoring position earlier in the shot clock, allowing more flexibility and selectivity in taking shots.

As for players creating their own shots, Notre Dame was ninth, Virginia Tech 15th in offensive rebounds per game in 2020. Happily for those squads, they had players able to dish the ball with minimal miscues. To wit: the Hokies’ Wabissa Bede led the ACC in assist-turnover ratio (3.34) while the Irish’s TJ Gibbs ranked second (2.67) and Rex Pflueger stood fourth (2.12).

Conversely, while they weren’t much at supportive passing, league powers Duke, FSU and UL finished as three of the ACC’s five best offensive rebounding squads. Their players thus were more facile at getting the ball in scoring position without a mediating assist.

The relationship between prosperity and having an efficient passing game — reflected in ratio of assists to turnovers and in portion of scoring fueled by passes — isn’t all that firm, as a pair of ’20 ACC squads demonstrated.

Georgia Tech had one of last year’s worst ratios of turnovers to assists, and still finished fifth in the standings.

Meanwhile the Virginia program showed its adaptability by prospering one year while nimbly sharing the ball, and the next while uncharacteristically bleeding turnovers.

The Cavaliers led the ACC in assist-turnover ratio in 2019 and ranked fifth nationally in that category en route to the NCAA title. In 2020, with the only negative rate of turnovers to assists of Tony Bennett’s 11-year tenure (-.093), UVa still approximated its ’19 efficiency in producing baskets with passes (.548 versus .559) and finished tied for second in the league’s regular-season standings.

Percent of Baskets Credited with an Assist, 2020
Ast/FGM School Asts-FGM A:TO FG%
.6212 Notre Dame 528-850 1.68 .426
.595 Virginia Tech 468-787 1.48 .419
.5498 Syracuse 447-813 1.23 .435
.5479 Virginia 343-626 -.93 .413
.5457 No. Carolina 472-865 1.11 .420
.5456 Clemson 401-735 1.04 .428
.5442 Georgia Tech 425-781 -.84 .452
.5431 Boston College 403-742 -.92 .402
.5351 Pittsburgh 404-755 1.00 .404
.5346 Louisville 433-810 1.15 .453
.521 Duke 479-920 1.17 .470
.516 Wake Forest 395-765 -.90 .432
.490 NC State 434-885 1.13 .452
.485 Florida State 409-844 1.00 .457
.389 Miami 310-796 -.83 .429