Guards pass first, ask questions later

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Forgetting for a moment the mathematical problems posed by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky's oft-cited and oft-tweeted assertion that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take, the sentiment is never more tempting to the ears and egos of basketball players than in March. Glory, adulation and advancement are available with the flick of a wrist.

Take the shot. Make the shot. Be the hero.

Yet for two teams that find themselves two wins from a potential trip to the Final Four, a trip that for either appeared considerably more distant than one weekend when the season began, the governing wisdom is a little different.

Baylor's Niya Johnson and Iowa's Samantha Logic can't hit the shots they don't take. But their teammates can and do.

No two players in the tournament are better at making passes. Choosing which ones to pass up might prove decisive Friday.

"Her ace in the hole is she knows she can score. … She just loves to pass the basketball, and she does a great job of it." Baylor associate head coach Bill Brock on Niya Johnson

When Johnson and Logic do pass the ball, it leads to points as often as not. Logic is the NCAA's active career leader in assists by a staggering amount. No contemporary is within a hundred of her career total of 884 assists, that mark good for 13th all-time. The gap between first and second place on the list of active leaders is greater than that between second and eighth. But as it happens, the person occupying eighth place is the reason Logic will be only the second-best passer, at least as measured by assists this season, on the court when No. 3 seed Iowa plays No. 2 seed Baylor on Friday night (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 7:30 ET).

Johnson, a junior, leads the nation with 8.7 assists per game this season.

"We think we have a pretty good point guard, and she's third in the country in assists," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder joked. "With their point guard leading the country in assists, that's pretty amazing."

Logic is Iowa's fourth-leading scorer this season, albeit among a balanced quartet that averages between 13.4 and 15.2 points per game. A four-year starter, she is averaging double-figure points for just the second time this season. There have been times when the most difficult part of getting a triple-double, and Logic has more than any other player, is shooting enough to get to 10 points.

But if Logic is a pass-first point guard, that option is Johnson's first, second and third inclination.

Baylor's point guard has attempted 189 field goals this season and recorded 296 assists. Now consider that among the teams that remain in the tournament, no other player who leads a team in assists has more of them than field goal attempts. Not Iowa's Logic, not Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen, another guard here who is perceived as primarily a savvy distributor.

Only a handful of those assists leaders are within even triple digits of having as many assists as field goal attempts.

"There is no doubt that in her mind her first three options are pass," said Baylor associate head coach Bill Brock, who has been with Kim Mulkey for all but three of the head coach's seasons in Waco, Texas.

Johnson took three shots and had 12 assists in the second round against Arkansas. She had three shots and eight assists in the first round against Northwestern State. In perhaps her quintessential line, she played 33 minutes in a blowout win against Kansas State in January and totaled eight assists. She didn't attempt a field goal or a free throw in the game.

"Really just knowing when to pass it and knowing when to shoot it," Johnson said of the balance she attempts to strike. "People know I'm a passer, so they're going to set up for me. So that's when I try and take advantage of it by shooting the ball in the midrange and just spreading our offense and making them guard me."

The thing is, it's not as if Johnson can't score. She twice put up more than 40 points in high school and averaged nearly 20 points per game for state championship high school teams at P.K. Yonge in Gainesville, Florida.

"Her ace in the hole is she knows she can score," Brock continued. "She was a legitimate scorer in high school, led her team to state championships. She knows that when the time comes she can hit that shot. She's proved it over and over when people have left her open. She's done it this season, and then last season in the Big 12 conference championship game, she was our leading scorer against West Virginia.

"She just loves to pass the basketball, and she does a great job of it."

Baylor lost much more than a statistical presence when Odyssey Sims moved on to the WNBA, but intangibles aside, replacing the All-American began with replacing her very tangible workload. Sims averaged more than 20 field goal attempts per game a season ago, not to mention nearly eight free throw attempts. Those shots had to be redistributed among a rotation that, with the exception of Australian freshman Kristy Wallace, added little new.

"It's easy to play with her because she makes everyone around her better. She's always looking to distribute and make that extra pass, pass up the good shot for the better shot. She's just an extremely fun player to watch and play with." Ally Disterhoft on Iowa teammate Samatha Logic

For her part, Johnson is taking essentially the same number of shots as she did with Sims a season ago.

Nina Davis is averaging nearly four additional shots per game, Khadijiah Cave nearly three additional shots per game, Imani Wright three additional shots per game and Alexis Prince, admittedly injured most of last season, almost three additional shots per game.

Guess who is getting them the ball for a lot of those attempts?

"We just felt like it was going to have to be by committee," Brock said of the redistribution of wealth. "We did not think that Niya would be able to be a pass, pass, pass-first point guard. We felt like she would have to score more. But because of the fact that Imani Wright and Kristy Wallace and Alexis Prince have stepped up offensively, those shots of Odyssey's have been spread out by committee, and that gives Niya more opportunity to pass the ball."

Brock said that when Johnson gets below the foul line, the coaching staff wants her to look to score first, then think about passing (and it's worth noting she has attempted 104 free throws this season). And when Kim Mulkey wants something from a point guard, the position she played with distinction, she tends to make her point in, let's say, crystal-clear terms. Still, Johnson will always look to pass.

"She's so unselfish, and I think sometimes she can be too unselfish," Wright said. "Niya, she's a threat. She can score the ball in many ways, and sometimes you have to tell her, 'Hey, that's your shot; you might have overpassed too much.' But she's still a great player. She knows when to take those shots. She can hit big shots."

So, too, can Logic, although that's not the first trait with which new teammates of the All-American have to grow accustomed.

"You better be ready or you're going to get hit in the face with the pass, just because she rifles it in there," sophomore Ally Disterhoft said with no small degree of ruefulness. "But she's an incredible player. It's easy to play with her because she makes everyone around her better. She's always looking to distribute and make that extra pass, pass up the good shot for the better shot. She's just an extremely fun player to watch and play with."

Even as a high school superstar, the No. 10 recruit in her class according to ESPN HoopGurlz, Logic wasn't as prolific a scorer as even Johnson. She never averaged more than 16.4 points per game at J.I. Case High School in Racine, Wisconsin. What she did, as she has continued to do in the Big Ten, is just about everything else. The assists aside, Logic has more career rebounds than all but 20 players who participated in Division I basketball this season. It almost goes without saying she is the only point guard on that list.

Steals? You bet. She's among the active leaders. And while not a threat to teammate Melissa Dixon in a 3-point contest, she has become a reliable enough asset from behind the arc (something Johnson has yet to demonstrate) to demand defensive attention.

But this season, and especially during Big Ten play when Iowa was fighting for the NCAA tournament seed it eventually earned and the corresponding right to host the first two rounds on its court, she has looked to score, too. Not always. Not as often. But effectively, whether in transition, midrange jumpers, those occasional 3-pointers or the back-downs that are one of her hallmarks.

"I think she realized we needed to have that for us to be successful," Bluder said. "We've always talked about we want five people in double figures. That's our goal. I think people started defending Melissa a little bit harder, trying to take away Bethany, and she's kind of like, 'I've got to step up and score as well as pass the ball.' So I think this year was the first year that I think she became more an aggressive mentality offensively in the scoring aspect."

Johnson and Logic will try to put their teams in position to win Friday night, which in their minds means putting the ball in the hands of teammates in places where they can do something with the gift. The two of them do that about as well as any guards in the country.

It might also mean keeping the ball at some key moment and finding their own shot, the one that you can't make if you don't take.