AMHERST — Among the many attributes a point guard needs is the ability to observe, surveying the floor and waiting for the precise moment to do the right thing with the basketball. It’s part skill and part school, since the best point guards study defensive tendencies, then react when that opposition provides even the slightest opening.
Most good teams have one really good point guard. With the emergence this season of sophomore Trey Davis, the UMass Minutemen appear to have two.
As if opponents didn’t already have enough to worry about.
With Wooden Award candidate Chaz Williams returning for his senior season, the Minutemen seemed set at the position. Williams hasn’t disappointed, leading the team in scoring (15.5 points per game) and handing out 7.2 assists per contest, good for third nationally. UMass (21-5) likely will go as far this season as Williams will take them.
But his understudy is getting better by the game, taking over when Williams sits (which isn’t often), and running the show at times when they’re on the floor together (which is becoming more frequent).
Williams is loud and almost always talking; he is from Brooklyn, after all. Davis, a soft-spoken substitute with an unorthodox shot, has given the Minutemen a different dimension on offense. All it took was a little time for the 20-year-old from the Dallas suburb of DeSoto, Texas, to get acclimated.
“Trey wanted to be at UMass, and when guys want to be at a place they’re going to work hard and they’re going to commit to a place. I think he’s done that, and taken on all the stuff that comes with that: Loving the snow, enjoying the cold weather, the ice. Nothing is going to get in the way of his path to be successful,” said coach Derek Kellogg, also a former UMass point guard. “He’s the first guy in the gym. If you’re in the gym and you want to get better, normally it happens.”
Davis, after playing fewer than 10 minutes per game as a freshman, has flourished as a sophomore, especially in conference games. He’s sixth on the Minutemen in scoring at 8.7 points per game, but heading into Wednesday’s 7 p.m. visit from Rhode Island, Davis is tied for second on the team in Atlantic 10 games (10.5). This, in only 24.7 minutes per contest, and without starting.
Davis scored a career-high 20 points on Feb. 12 against George Mason, and had 13 points in Friday’s 80-75 win over Virginia Commonwealth, while logging a career-high 30 minutes. His jumper with 4:04 left broke a tie and gave the Minutemen the lead for good.
“He’s one of the most improved players in our league,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said after Friday’s game. “That’s not the same guy we played against last year. He’s a high-level A-10 player now, and that’s what you want, for guys that come in as freshmen and they’ve got some things to learn, and you want them to take a big jump between their freshman year and their sophomore year. I think that’s what Trey Davis has done, he really gives them a different element when he comes in the game.”
Davis is good at distributing the ball, but looks for his own shot, too, especially from 3-point range. His 35 3-pointers this season trail only the 42 by Williams, but Davis’s 38 percent shooting from behind the arc leads the team, at least among players with 10 or more attempts. Exactly half of Davis’s 70 field goals this season are 3-pointers.
His form is unique. A righthander, Davis’s right elbow juts out when he goes up to shoot, his shooting arm becoming almost parallel to the floor. His right hand is squarely behind the ball, and he flings the shot from slightly above his face. Yes, he’s self-taught, and admits you might not want to try his technique at home.
“When I was younger they tried to get me away from it, but I’ve practiced it so much, I know how to get my shot off over bigger defenders,” Davis said. “If I can get my shot off and I know I can make it, I’m not worried about changing it.”
Davis studied another Trey before last week’s game with VCU. He watched Michigan’s NCAA Tournament win last season over the Rams, when Wolverines point guard Trey Burke scored 18 points. Burke is now a rookie in the NBA with the Utah Jazz. His fan club includes Davis.
“Over the summer, I really studied the game. I watched a lot of games. I watched Trey Burke a lot,” Davis said. “I like to listen. Being able to listen and to study the game, try to learn little edges of the game, I think that will help me.”
Davis’s elevated role has certainly helped Williams. When Davis is handling the ball, especially against pressure, Williams doesn’t have to, and can use his energy getting open and finding ways to score.
“Once he’s in the game, you get to spread the defense out. His guy can’t help as much, and they’re not just concerned about slowing me, they’re looking where Trey is, trying to spot the shooter,” Williams said. “Trey was always a great player, even last year, just his confidence was low. Now he’s playing with a ton of confidence, and he knows we’re coming to him for the big shot.”
Davis won’t start on Wednesday against URI, but he might finish. In between, he’ll contribute any number of ways, a testament to his breakout sophomore season that’s coincided with UMass’s return to the national rankings and an expected trip to the NCAA Tournament, which would be the program’s first since 1998.
“I think it’s added another scorer,” Davis said, when asked how his emergence has impacted the Minutemen offense. “Some games I’m better behind the [3-point line], some games I can get to the basket, some games I can assist. I think that’s really helped our team a lot.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.