Joe Santoro: Pack’s passing paying off in victories |

Joe Santoro: Pack’s passing paying off in victories

Joe Santoro
Special to the Appeal
Joe Santoro

The Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is bringing the Golden State Warriors to Northern Nevada.

“Before every practice we watch film of the Golden State Warriors, the way they ricochet the ball around,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “We watch NBA clips everyday of their ball movement. That’s the way we want to play.”

That is the way the Pack certainly played Tuesday night in beating UC Davis, 88-73, at Lawlor Events Center. Five players had three or more assists as the Pack finished with 24 assists on 32 field goals.

“The more touches we get, the better shots we get,” said guard Kendall Stephens, who had 16 points.

At times it seems like everyone in silver and blue — players, coaches, fans, concession workers — touches the ball on a given Wolf Pack possession.

“We have a goal of 200 passes every game,” junior forward Caleb Martin said. “That’s kind of ingrained in our heads by coach (Musselman). We all bought in right away.”

Cody Martin led the Pack with six assists. Josh Hall came off the bench to get five assists. Point guard Lindsey Drew and Caleb Martin each had four assists. With the Pack, though, there’s about a half dozen guys who play the role of point guard each game. On each possession.

“We’ve watched a ton of film on the Golden State Warriors, a team with three or four superstars,” Caleb Martin said. “We see how they all pass the ball and end up with great shots. If a team with three or four superstars can pass the ball around and be successful, we can certainly do it.”

The Wolf Pack entered Tuesday’s game ranked second in the Mountain West with 17.5 assists a game. That number seems to be growing with each passing game. When the Pack passes the ball well, it wins. In the Pack’s only two losses this year (against Texas Tech and TCU) it had just 24 combined assists, an average of 12 a game. In the Pack’s 10 wins it has averaged 19.3 assists a game. That, Musselman said, is no coincidence.

“When we share the ball we’re a pretty good offensive team,” Musselman said.

The five players with three or more assists equals a season high for the passing Pack. But it isn’t rare. The Wolf Pack also had five players with three or more assists in a 93-63 win over Santa Clara, a 98-68 win over Illinois State and in a 77-62 win over Radford on Sunday.

“Look at all our assists,” said Musselman, who then proceeded to read off the impressive assist totals of his roster on Tuesday. “We have some willing passers.”

Willing and able. It’s one thing to pass the ball a lot. It’s quite another to pass it well. The 24 assists on 32 field goals against Davis — 217 assists on 340 field goals for the season — is proof the Pack is passing it well.

The most acrobatic Pack pass against Davis came late in the second half when Caleb Martin fell to the floor just outside the 3-point circle on Davis’ side of the court. Martin then somehow swatted the ball forward to Hallice Cooke who dunked it for a 78-58 lead with just under five minutes to play. The other 23 Pack assists weren’t as spectacular but they were just as effective.

The Pack’s willingness to pass the ball isn’t happening by accident. Musselman looked at his roster last spring (6-foot-8 center Cam Oliver had just left for the riches of professional basketball) and figured out quickly that sharing the ball was the key to Pack offensive success this year.

“We have so many offensive players who can shoot and create their own shot,” Musselman said. “But when you have a lot of players who can do that, it is a good thing but it can also be problematic. We have four or five players who can get a shot whenever they want it.”

Musselman squeezed all of the selfishness out of this team last spring and summer.

“We have 50-pass drills where we have to make 50 passes and they have to call them out as they are doing it before we can take a shot,” Musselman said. “They’ve bought in.”

Even players off the bench — guys on normal teams who usually just look to hoist up a shot before they have to go back to the bench — have bought in on this Pack team. Hall played 21 minutes off the bench and had five assists while taking just three shots. The Pack bench has contributed 21 assists over the last two games against Radford and Davis.

“Our team is pretty deep,” Stephens said. “We know we have a lot of weapons.”

And the Pack uses them all.

Four players (Jordan Caroline with 20, Caleb Martin with 22, Hallice Cooke with 12 and Stephens with 16) ended up scoring in double figures. The Pack has now had at least three players in every game this year with 10 or more points. Five players (Stephens, Caroline, Hall and the Martin twins) have produced at least one 20-point game already this year. That doesn’t happen on a selfish team that does not share the ball.

The Wolf Pack’s passing is never better than when it is on the run. The Pack had just 13 fast-break points combined in its two losses to TCU and Texas Tech. Against Radford and Davis, the Pack combined for 40 fast-break points. Davis and Radford combined for just two against the Pack. Yes, the Pack simply ran Radford and Davis out of Lawlor Events Center.

But it’s not simply a nightly indoor track meet at Lawlor Events Center this season. It’s rare when one player simply grabs the rebound and streaks to the other end of the floor with the ball. Those fast-break points, more often than not, are a testament to the way the Pack can carve up an opponent with passes.

“Passing the ball is a way to show you trust your teammates,” Caleb Martin said.

That trust is paying off in victories.