There is no desired ratio, no target number of assists that North Carolina tries to achieve. And yet year in and year out, again and again, the Tar Heels have been among the national leaders in assists – the simple basketball act of setting up a teammate’s successful shot attempt.
During its 91-72 victory against Virginia Tech on Thursday night, UNC’s proclivity for the assist was on display again, as it has been throughout this season. The Tar Heels on Thursday made 36 shots from the field, and 25 of those came on the other side of an assist.
The 25 assists were the second most UNC has accumulated this season, and the most it has had in an ACC game. Entering their game on Saturday at Miami, the Tar Heels rank third nationally in assists per game (18.6), and they’re among the top five national assist leaders for the fifth time in the past six seasons.
Part of the Tar Heels’ high rate of assists is easy enough to understand. They play an up-tempo style, and with more possessions comes more opportunities for points and assists – and for rebounds and other statistics, for that matter.
Yet the numbers are reflective of a culture, too, and the belief that sharing the ball is paramount. The proof is in the numbers.
“Well, I think we are unselfish,” UNC coach Roy Williams said on Thursday, explaining his team’s knack for the assist. “... I think they look to pass. They’re not coming off of screens all the time thinking shot – they come off the screen trying to see other people, and I think that’s good.”
Individually, UNC lacks the kind of passing wizard that Kendall Marshall was during his two college seasons. No UNC player will rewrite the school’s assists records, the way Marshall did, and only Joel Berry, the junior point guard who averages 4 assists, is among the top 10 in the ACC in assists per game.
In UNC’s offense, though, adept passing is a requirement that extends well beyond Berry. Theo Pinson, the 6-6 forward, is known as UNC’s best passer. And Williams in recent years has described 6-10 senior forward Kennedy Meeks as one of the best passing big men he’s ever coached.
Williams recruits players who already possess the necessarily talent – the vision, the passing touch – to set up their teammates. And then, when they arrive, they are indoctrinated into a pass-first culture that emphasizes the importance of ball movement and reciprocity.
One of UNC’s most well-known basketball traditions is the point to the passer, the acknowledgment of the teammate who made the pass that created the opportunity to score. There was a lot of pointing last season, when UNC was second nationally in assists per game, and there’s been a lot this season, too.
Like on Thursday night, for instance. No UNC player finished the victory against Virginia Tech with more than four assists. Eight UNC players, though, had at least two assists, and sophomore forward Luke Maye had a career-high three assists in 10 minutes.
“I just think it’s just experience,” Berry said, explaining how UNC is yet again among the national leaders in assists. “That’s something that we have, and we know if we share the ball we know we’re going to get a good shot, and that’s what we want every single time.
“We’ve been playing with each other for a while.”
UNC at Miami
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Watsco Center, Coral Gables, Fla.