By Adam Lucas
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that with Kendall Marshall back in the Smith Center on Sunday afternoon, the most fun part of Carolina’s 85-64 win over Pitt was watching the Tar Heels pass the basketball.
Marshall, who was back in town during the NBA All-Star break along with former teammate Tyler Zeller, has his name all over Carolina’s assists record book, including an ACC-record 351 during the highlight-reel 2011-12 season (we will pause here for an obligatory, “Freaking Creighton!” lamentation).
The current Tar Heels looked suitably inspired against the Panthers, handing out 26 assists on 32 field goals, meaning 81.3 percent of the field goals on the afternoon came with an assist. That’s the second-highest ratio of the season, trailing only an 83.3% mark against Tulane.
Most tellingly, though, it’s a significant departure from the offense during the rest of ACC play. Carolina came into the game recording an assist on 55.7 percent of the baskets in league games.
It’s easy to say the Tar Heels simply made shots against the Panthers, so the assists came more easily. But it wasn’t just that Carolina had more assists against Pitt. It’s that they made better, quicker, timelier passes, even when they didn’t result in a basket.
Consider a couple of passes that didn’t end in hoops. Midway through the second half, Brice Johnson rocketed a 40-foot outlet pass to Justin Jackson that looked like it would result in a layup, but Jackson had the shot blocked.
No problem. Johnson simply challenged the next Pitt shot, grabbed the rebound, and this time took a couple dribbles to clear the defense before firing a very similar outlet pass to Jackson again, who this time finished it with a layup that gave the Tar Heels a 29-point lead over a good Pitt team.
Later in the game, Theo Pinson—playing exactly the kind of Theo Pinson game Carolina needs him to play—alertly found Kenny Williams cross-court for an open three-pointer. Williams missed it, but it’s the kind of heads-up, alert offense that was missing during some of the offensive doldrums. Even Pitt’s 3-2 zone couldn’t slow the Tar Heels, who consistently beat it with a mix of dribble penetration and sharp passes.
"We’re a good passing team,” Marcus Paige said. “We have wings who can pass the ball really well and our big men have developed some chemistry in working together. It’s not just relying on jump shots…Today we beat the zone with balance. We hit some 3s early and that messed up their zone because they started worrying more about our jump shots. We’re a team that shares the ball so effortlessly it’s hard to play zone.”
And as always, the unselfish passing was contagious. By the time Jackson converted another transition bucket with seven minutes remaining, Smith Center public address announcer Tony Gilliam bellowed, “Justin Jackson, with assists from Kennedy Meeks and Joel Berry.” They’re not yet handing out hockey assists in basketball—on the ice, you get credit for the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal—but if there was ever a day to do it, this was the one.
Everything seemed to go right. When Berry threw a sky-high lob to Isaiah Hicks in the first half, the junior managed to climb almost to the top of the square to haul it in and sink the layup. When Pinson found Paige on the left wing on a second half fast break, Paige first thought about swinging the ball around the three-point line, but then decided to pull the trigger, and sank one of his three three-pointers on the afternoon.
But those plays have a way of finding a team playing, as Williams said after the game, “for the name on the front of the jersey.” There was a time this season that it looked like this might be one of Williams' best passing teams at Carolina. That unselfishness waned over the last month, and the head coach reminded his team repeatedly during January and February--even after a couple of wins--to play for the team and not for individual statistics.
They showed why it mattered on Sunday. For the first time in almost a month, the Tar Heels seemed aware all the time of where every teammate on the court could be found. With a minute left in the first half, Jackson brought the ball down the right wing and spotted Paige out of the corner of his eye on the opposite side of the court. Instead of forcing a pass right at that moment, Jackson took an extra dribble or two, let the traffic sort itself out, and only then delivered a perfect pass to Paige for the three-pointer.
“Today we made different passes,” said Brice Johnson (even Johnson had three assists; he had a total of two in the previous seven games). “Before, we were making marginal passes, and today we made the easy passes.”
In all, seven different Tar Heels had at least one assist. The effort was the product of practices since the Boston College win that have focused on helping a teammate, and especially on helping a teammate on offense. Set a screen. Play with your head up. Make an easy pass and deliver it where your teammate needs it to score. All are ways to help a teammate; all were in abundance on Sunday.
“Twenty-six assists on 32 field goals means people were helping each other out there,” Paige said, “and that’s fun basketball to play.”