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January 11, 2013

A culture of sharing the rock

When a player misses a shot after a great pass, he’s conditioned to think about how he cost his teammate an assist.

When they come back to the locker room after a game, the first statistics they look at are the assists and turnovers.

Pickup games look more like structured practices than freewheeling, freelancing playground activity.

At Notre Dame, there is “a culture of sharing and passing the ball,” as ESPN Insider Jay Bilas wrote and said the other day.

“You’ve heard me talk about how we love to share and move the ball, but I had never heard it put like that,” said Mike Brey, who admitted that he stole the phrase from Bilas for his own use.

“That’s really been important in our program from day one. We really emphasize that. We put up where we are in assists nationally and where we are in the league.”

Sitting in Brey’s office is the trophy that commemorates the Irish leading the nation in assists in 2007-08 at 18.9 per game. They also were tops in assist-to-turnover margin at 1.46.

Once again this year, the Irish sit atop the nation in assists at 19.9 per game, which is 0.8 better than No. 2 Ohio University (19.1) and a full assist per game ahead of No. 3 Pittsburgh (18.9). Notre Dame ranks second in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.83, behind only Pittsburgh at 2.05.

“I’ll come into the locker room after a game and say, ‘Twenty five assists, unbelievable,’ to keep reinforcing that unselfishness,” Brey said. “Our guys really take a lot of pride in how they move the ball.”

From the moment a new player enters the program, he’s conditioned to pass the basketball. It can be an eye-opening experience, even for someone accustomed to sharing the rock.

“When I was a freshman with all the older guys, it was an open gym, so you’re expecting to get it and go one-on-one,” said point guard Eric Atkins, who leads the Irish in assists with 109 (7.4 per game) and ranks eighth nationally. “That’s what you do at home. So that’s what I was expecting.

“But right when you get here, it’s pass, it’s cut, literally in open gym we play the exact same way. You see it early, and you have to buy into it or one of the older guys is going to get on you right away.”

“It’s really weird to have pickup games here and to have pickup games back home,” said Irish big man Jack Cooley. “It’s amazing how much different they are. People passing and not being selfish, it’s really great to see.”

Most basketball players turn to their scoring figures on the stat sheet after the game. The Irish are just as interested in two other columns.

“Assist-to-turnover is our favorite one and our number of assists,” said Irish tri-captain Scott Martin. “That’s what we really hang our hat on, and I think that’s what makes us different than most teams. We want assists. We really don’t worry about points.”

So obsessed are the Irish with assists that it’s not the points squandered that pops into their heads, but the lost opportunity for an assist.

“If I miss a shot and Eric or J(erian Grant) passed it to me, that’s the first thing that goes through my mind is I screwed them out of an assist, even if I get my own rebound and put it back in,” Cooley said.

“We get more upset with ourselves if we miss a shot because we cost someone an assist,” Martin said. “We all know who owes us an assist or two on the team. That’s kind of how we see it and we kind of play with each other like, ‘You owe me an assist.’”

The culture of passing and sharing the basketball sometimes takes time to learn. Sophomore Pat Connaughton went through his entire freshman season with 30 assists. Through 15 games this year, he already has 42 assists.

“The assists numbers are almost just as fun as the scoring numbers,” Connaughton said. “You know you’re creating shots for your team and you know it’s going in. I’m one of the club (joining Atkins and Grant) because last year I was one-dimensional. Now, I’m more like them.”

Sharing the basketball and accumulating assists gives the players an all-for-one, one-for-all feeling that brings the team closer together. At crunch time, everyone on the court believes he can be the one who makes the shot or throws the pass that leads to the shot.

“We love to pass,” said Grant, who is second to Atkins in assists with 79 (5.2 a game). “We love being the team that leads the country in assists. It’s a stamp of our program. It’s what we like to do.”

For the head coach, it’s all music to his ears.

“We recruit basketball IQ guys for the most part, so it’s something that we’ve really emphasized and guys are proud of it,” Brey said. “There has to be great trust to do that, and that’s something that I have to develop.”

The Irish players wear their assist numbers like a badge of pride.

“Our guys get excited about how we pass the ball and how we share the ball,” Grant said. “We’re not just one main guy like other teams where he controls the ball the whole time. We pass and cut and everybody can get assists, everybody can get baskets. It makes the game more fun and makes everybody play together.”

“You look at all of Coach Brey’s teams and it’s highest assist-to-turnover ratio and getting open shots,” Martin said. “You only get those open shots if you pass the ball to each other, and we’re lucky to have four shooters on the court at one time. It’s definitely engrained in us.”

“It’s just kind of how we play as a team and how we care about it other,” Cooley said. “It just kind of personifies how we want what’s best for the team and how we want to win over any individual stats. The players set the tone for it as much as the coaches.”

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