It may not receive the same attention on highlight shows or on social media as a thunderous dunk that rattles the rim or a deep 3 that swishes through the net, but the pass that sets up a basket is often just as important.

In the NCAA Tournament, the ball handler who finds the open man or feeds a teammate cutting to the basket can possibly turn the momentum of a game and help his team advance to the next round.

Since the NCAA began tracking assists in 1984, a player has 15 or more in nine different men’s tournament games – and his team has gone 7-2.

We’ll fire up the March Madness time machine to go back and revisit the NCAA Division I men’s college basketball tournament games with 15 or more assists (although we don’t have to go back far for Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell joining the NCAA Tournament Records):

1. – 19 Assists, Markquis Nowell, Kansas State vs. Michigan State (March 23, 2023)

Nowell put on a show during the 2023 NCAA Tournament, averaging 23.5 points and 13.5 assists while leading third-seeded Kansas State to the Elite Eight. In the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden, he finished with 20 points and an NCAA Tournament-record 19 assists as the Wildcats topped seventh-seeded Michigan State 98-93 in overtime – breaking UNLV guard Mark Wade’s previous record that stood for nearly 26 years.

It was appropriate Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell wore jersey No. 1 when he accounted for the most assists in an NCAA Tournament game. Led by the 19-assist game against Michigan State, Nowell had 54 across four tourney games. (Associated Press)

Nowell, a senior guard, also starred with 30 points, 12 assists, five steals and five 3-pointers in Kansas State’s 79-76 loss to ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic in the Elite Eight.

2. 18 Assists – Mark Wade, UNLV vs. Indiana (March 28, 1987)

No player has amassed more assists in a single NCAA Tournament than Wade in 1987, with the highwater mark coming in UNLV’s loss to eventual champion Indiana in the Final Four. Incredibly, the 5-foot-11 left-hander dished out 18 assists without committing a turnover in the 97-93 defeat, a game that also featured teammate Freddie Banks draining a then-NCAA Tournament record 10 3-pointers.

An All-Big West first-team selection in the 1986-87 season, Wade recorded a tournament-record 61 assists– five more than Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson in 1989. Wade also was a solid defender, notching 18 steals, but he wasn’t much of a threat to score with only 13 points in those five tourney games.

T-3. 16 Assists – Earl Watson, UCLA vs. Maryland (March 18, 2000)

UCLA has a tradition-laden history in men’s college basketball, and Watson’s 16 assists in the 2000 second round stand as the program’s all-time high in March Madness. After assisting on 12 baskets in the sixth-seeded Bruins’ first-round win over Ball State, the then-junior Watson set the school record two days later in a 105-70 victory over third-seeded Maryland.

He didn’t turn the ball over once against the Terrapins, while producing an impressive stat line that also included 17 points, four steals and 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range.

T-3. 16 Assists – Mitch Johnson, Stanford vs. Marquette (March 22, 2008)

Johnson never had more than eight assists in a game during his junior season in 2007-08 and assisted on just five buckets in third-seeded Stanford’s first-round win over Cornell right before he set the program’s single-game record.

Facing sixth-seeded Marquette, Johnson had 16 assists in the Cardinal’s 82-81 overtime win. His final assist came on Brook Lopez’s baseline game-winning basket with 1.3 seconds left.

In three March Madness games, Johnson averaged 9.7 assists, or five more than he averaged in 30 regular-season games.

T-3. 16 Assists – Ja Morant, Murray State vs. Marquette (March 21, 2019)

Despite Morant being a first-team All-American in 2018-19, most casual college basketball fans hadn’t seen much of the sophomore, who played for mid-major Murray State. But more and more people quickly took a closer look at the budding superstar starting with the 12th-seeded Racers’ 83-64 upset of Marquette in the 2019 NCAA Tournament first round.

Morant had 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds to record the first triple-double in March Madness since Michigan State’s Draymond Green in 2012, and just the ninth in the tourney since the NCAA began tracking triple-doubles in 1986.

The Ohio Valley Conference player of the year had 28 points in the second round against fourth-seeded Florida State, but just four assists as Murray State’s season ended with a 90-62 loss.

T-6. 15 Assists – Kenny Patterson, DePaul vs. Syracuse (March 15, 1985)

Patterson established an NCAA Tournament record for assists in a 1985 game, besting the mark of 14, set by SMU’s Carl Wright and Kentucky’s Dickey Beal one year earlier – the first year the NCAA began tracking assists.

DePaul’s all-time assists leader broke the record in a 70-65 first-round loss to seventh-seeded Syracuse, accounting for 15 of the Blue Demons’ 20 overall. The senior also had 11 points, four rebounds and four steals while playing all 40 minutes in his final collegiate game.

T-6. 15 Assists – Keith Smart, Indiana vs. Auburn (March 14, 1987)

Smart is best remembered for hitting the game-winning jumper in the waning seconds of the 1987 national championship game, lifting Indiana to a thrilling, 74-73 victory over Syracuse.

Although Smart averaged just 3.2 assists during the season, he set the program record for assists in top-seeded Indiana’s 107-90, second-round victory over eighth-seeded Auburn. He had 15 assists to go with 20 points and nine rebounds, falling one board shy of a triple-double.

In the national championship game, he sealed Indiana’s win with a steal on Syracuse’s inbounds pass following his go-ahead hoop, and finished with 21 points, six assists and five rebounds. He was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

T-6. 15 Assists – Pepe Sanchez, Temple vs. Lafayette (March 17, 2000)

As a senior in 1999-2000, Sanchez earned third-team All-America honors as one of the top facilitators in men’s college basketball, ranking fifth in the nation with an average of 8.0 assists per game.

His personal high came in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, as he dished out 15 assists while second-seeded Temple cruised past Lafayette 73-47. He didn’t score any points in the blowout victory, but contributed five rebounds and three steals.

Two days later, he had two points and six assists as the Owls’ season ended with a 67-65 overtime loss to 10th-seeded Seton Hall.

T-6. 15 Assists – Aaron Craft, Ohio State vs. George Mason (March 20, 2011)

Craft led the Buckeyes in assists in all four of his seasons in Columbus and is Ohio State’s all-time leader. His career high came during his freshman season in the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. In the top-seeded Buckeyes’ 98-66 rout of eighth-seeded George Mason, he tallied 15 assists, along with six points and six rebounds.

In the regional semifinals, however, Craft followed with just two assists in 36 minutes as Ohio State suffered a 62-60 loss to fourth-seeded Kentucky.

* – NCAA Tournament appearance later vacated under NCAA sanctions

36 – North Carolina vs. Loyola Marymount (CA), Second Round, March 19, 1988
35 – UNLV vs. Loyola Marymount (CA), Regional Final, March 25, 1990
35 – Kentucky vs. San Jose State, First Round, March 14, 1996
33 – Loyola Marymount (CA) vs. Michigan, Second Round, March 18, 1990
33 – Kansas vs. Chattanooga, First Round, March 17, 1994
33 – Kentucky vs. Mount St. Mary’s, First Round, March 16, 1995
32 – Arkansas vs. Georgia State, First Round, March 15,1991
32 – Kansas vs. Howard, First Round, March 20, 1992
32 – Kansas vs. South Carolina State, First Round, March 15, 1996
32 – *Michigan vs. ETSU, Second Round, March 22, 1992

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