Passing is basketball’s most overlooked skill. Some have a natural, eyes-in-back-of-head knack for it, others don’t.
In 2005, when Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head were running the show — three-guard offenses always seem smoother — the Illini shot better (48.4 percent) than any UI quintet since the Flyin’ Illini dunkers in 1989. Why? Because they moved the ball so quickly and effortlessly, setting a school record with 727 assists. There is a direct relationship between heady setup passing and high-percentage shooting.
That 37-2 team had 299 more assists than turnovers (another record), not to mention 220 extra possessions on steals and rebounds. The rest took care of itself.
When coach John Groce arrived last season, one of his Illini goals was to produce more assists than turnovers. This seemed like a reasonable quest.
Despite the emphasis, a team that had been minus-30 in Bruce Weber’s final campaign slipped to minus-46. Even in the pressurized last nine games, which included a Big Ten tourney win against Minnesota and an NCAA defeat of Colorado, the Illini averaged fewer than eight assists per game.
For comparison, LIU Brooklyn’s Jason Brickman personally handed out 10 assists in a 73-72 loss to Indiana last Tuesday after averaging 8.5 last season. Some ballhandlers have a flair for it. Last year’s Illini persevered, but they lacked that gift. A 41.2 shooting percentage was the result, lowest by an Illini team in this short century.
Sharing is caring
The encouraging aspect of Sunday’s 83-51 rout of Bradley was the unselfish manner in which the Illini distributed the ball.
It’s a small sample, but 19 assists against 12 turnovers is impressive. And these setups weren’t merely flips to an open shooter on the wing. Penetration was persistent and there were multiple dunks off lobs, all by athletes looking to help a teammate. Freshman Jaylon Tate, whose four-game numbers show 17 assists and three miscues, dished out six, Rayvonte Rice five, and Tracy Abrams and Kendrick Nunn three apiece.
Nothing excites the home crowd or bonds a team more quickly than a clever pass and a dunk. And most of Jon Ekey’s five bombshell treys were the result of swings around the Bradley zone. Groce addressed it:
“We shared the basketball, 19 assists on 28 baskets. Our unselfishness was great.”
Obviously referring to Tate, the coach said: “It is hard to teach players to put the ball on target and on time.”
If it isn’t in the DNA, it’s hard to produce.
Passing the test
By now, you must be thinking: What’s the big deal about beating Bradley, a rebuilt squad with four nondescript transfers in the starting lineup?
Look at it this way: That’s more than Matt Bollant’s women could do (they fell 98-92 in Peoria). And it’s more than the Illini did four years ago in Las Vegas, where Sam Maniscalco sparked a 72-68 Bradley win.
On the same Sunday, it was better than Michigan did at Iowa State, better than Notre Dame did against Indiana State, and better than North Carolina did against Belmont. Upsets abounded. And since UNLV serves as the UI’s first major test next Tuesday, it is significant that the Rebels are already drifting below expectations, having lost to Dixie State in an exhibition and to UC Santa Barbara 86-65 last week.
To be sure, the Illini are a work in progress, five veteran starters backed by five freshmen. Other than Ekey, who struggled for three games before breaking out, this team is not packed with above-average perimeter shooters. Abrams and Joe Bertrand have always mixed hot spurts with dry stretches. The 235-pound Rice has exquisite body control in traffic and will score in double figures, but his 0-for-6 slump on treys Sunday reminds that his three-point history is sub-par. And, remember, freshmen never shoot consistently well.
The only way this team can max out is by spreading the wealth and helping each other with spot-on passing.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.