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No Passing Fancy

Passing the ball is still the heart of the game

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Duke
 Feb 20, 2023; Durham, North Carolina, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tyrese Proctor(5) throws a pass ahead of Louisville Cardinals guard El Ellis (3) during the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

There‘s an obvious correlation between assists and baskets made, along with a less clearcut link to free throws tried and made. Per Wikipedia, a basketball assist is attributed to a player who passes the ball to a teammate in a way that leads directly to a score by field goal, meaning that they were “assisting” on the basket. An assist is also credited when a basket is awarded due to defensive goaltending.

In Dean Smith’s UNC practices, players were credited with assists if their passes led to a free throw attempt.

But clarity can be elusive. For instance, a basket created off the dribble may or may not lead to a score and be recorded as an assist. That depends on the number of dribbles and the predilections of the official scorer.

This subjectivity became something of an issue in the late 1980s as official scorers adjusted to the introduction of the 3-pointer. Some old-timers were reluctant to credit an assist on a single pass along the perimeter, especially that resulted in long shots encouraged by use of the three.

Last season 11 ACC schools saw assists awarded on 50.4 percent or more of their field goals. The four teams that did not assist on more than half their shots ranged from laggard Louisville at 41.8 percent to NC State, Notre Dame and finally North Carolina at 49.8.

None of those teams prospered.

Notre Dame and Louisville dropped to the bottom of the ACC barrel in ’23. UNC won 20, didn’t get an NCAA bid, and sulkily spurned the NIT. Only the Wolfpack among the ACC’s stingy assist group made the NCAAs, suffering a 72-63 loss to Creighton in the first round a year after the most losses in the school’s ACC history.

Back in 1988 only three of the eight ACC clubs notched assists on more than 50 percent of their field goals – Clemson, Maryland and UNC. This in an era when waves of superior playmakers operated at most ACC schools, among them Grayson Marshall at Clemson, Georgia Tech’s Craig Neal, and Carolina’s Jeff Lebo. The following season Bobby Hurley took the offensive reins at Duke, Chris Corchiani at NC State and John Crotty at Virginia.

Hurley finished his career in 1993 as the ACC leader in assists (1,076) over 140 games (7.7 per game). Corchiani, done in 1991, still leads in career assists per game (8.37). Appearing in 124 games, Corchiani joined Hurley with more than 1,000 assists (1,038). To this day Hurley leads all NCAA men in career assists while Corchiani is second.

Both of their schools were liberal in awarding assists at the time, just as Virginia was stingy doling them out. Crotty in four years at Virginia, three of them 20-win seasons, earned 683 assists in 129 games, 5.3 per game. In 1987, Crotty’s freshman year, the Cavs were so stingy awarding assists they were the only ACC team that recorded a helping hand on fewer than 50 percent of field goals they made on their home court.

Disappointing as Crotty’s assist total might be compared to his contemporaries during those halcyon days of dole outs for scores, he still stands second at UVa in that category for a career. He trails only Kihei Clark, who finished a five-year stint at Charlottesville in 2023 with 718 assists. Clark’s 5.42 assists per game were second in the ACC last season, behind only Wake transfer Tyree Appleby, a more-resistable version of explosive former Wolfpack scorer Anthony “Cat” Barber (2014-16). Appleby, like Barber, led the league in scoring.

UVa led all league teams in assists per field goal last year, supplying a successfully supportive pass on nearly two-thirds of baskets in Tony Bennett’s deliberate system. Duke was third (56.2), an impressive percentage of assisted field goals in Jon Scheyer’s first year on the job.

Envisioning improvement in passing by his 2023-24 squad, Scheyer said. “The difference this year is that we feel like we can be more of an explosive team in transition. We have really good guard play and very mobile bigs, but sharing the ball is going to be a key thing.”

Assists Per Field Goal Made And Shooting Accuracy in ACC in 2023
(Listed By Percent FGM to Assists)
School FG-FGA Asts %FGM/Ast FG%
Virginia 793-1765 519 64.45 .449
Virginia Tech 931-1983 528 56.71 .469
Duke 936-2072 526 56.20 .452
Pittsburgh 930-2081 509 54.71 .447
Georgia Tech 855-2019 463 54.15 .423
Clemson 899-1923 485 53.95 .467
Florida State 802-1840 430 53.62 .436
Syracuse 871-1883 459 52.71 .463
Miami 1058-2205 535 50.567 .480
Wake Forest 878-1909 444 50.569 .460
Boston College 819-1873 413 50.43 .437
North Carolina 866-1997 431 49.77 .434
Notre Dame 810-1830 379 46.79 .443
NC State 982-2181 434 44.20 .450
Louisville 716-1700 299 41.76 .421