Huskies' personnel causes change

Originally Published: January 20, 2005
By Jay Bilas | Special to ESPN Insider

Jim Calhoun and Connecticut have always played a certain way.

The Huskies have traditionally pushed the ball upcourt like a rocket and forced opposing transition defenses to scramble. Calhoun usually has speedy and strong lead guards, and athletic wings that can attack the basket and shoot from deep and mid-range.

Given a choice between having guards who can go all day, or big guys who can post and beat you up, Calhoun might choose the guards and try to run circles around you. In some cases, Calhoun has had both, and UConn has been pretty good that way.

Similarly, Bill Self of Kansas has always coached his teams to play a certain way. Self's teams are always efficient scoring squads and very disciplined defensively. Self-coached teams do not switch screens – they get over screens, or don't get screened at all. For Self, running into a screen is an excuse for not defending. It might happen, but it had better not happen often, or you will get some splinters in your back pocket.

His teams also run a lot of high-low offensive sets. Self values getting the ball inside, and working inside-out. It has worked nicely at Oral Roberts (where he turned a miserable loser into a winner), at Tulsa (Elite Eight ... are you kidding?) and Illinois (another Elite Eight).

Would it work at Kansas, where Roy Williams had established that Dorothy, corn and the Kansas secondary break were the three things the state is known for? Changing the way Aaron Miles, Keith Langford and Wayne Simien play? That would be blasphemy in the Phog! But Self coaches a different way to play. It's not better, and it's certainly not worse. It's just different.

After Self left Illinois, Bruce Weber took over a team of young players that had learned and internalized Self's system, and understood it as perhaps the best and only way to play. The young Illini knew where their shots were coming from, knew the positions the offense would put them in, and were comfortable with that. High-low, stagger away, single screen down and get a good shot.

Simple, effective and comfortable for players, once they learn it. Good stuff. But Weber plays a different way, too. Weber prefers motion offense, with multiple entries and quick hitters to get into it. Well, motion is difficult to grasp, because it requires responsibility and reads on the part of the players. Motion is not comfortable. You have to move with a purpose, and keep moving, and know how to play in order to run it effectively.

Few teams run real motion anymore, because it can take a while for the players to get, and coaches these days don't have much time. Weber did it anyway.

There are a thousand ways to play (and to play the right way). There is no "one way" to play, or one way to win. The best offenses move the ball from side to side, moving the defense. When defenses move, they break down and allow open shots.

The best teams and offenses break defenses down into help and recover situations, and get high percentage shots as a result of those breakdowns. No team wins consistently by making tough shots over time. Teams win by getting "easy baskets" and open looks. However, there is no such thing as an "easy" basket. Easy baskets are just the result of a lot of hard work just before the score.

For Self and Weber, the choices of how to play were fundamental. Each was taking over a new program and establishing a new foundation. The results have been impressive. Neither Kansas nor Illinois has lost a game yet this season, and Illinois is playing the most beautiful brand of basketball in the land.

For Calhoun, the 2004-2005 season brings an adjustment to how he wants to play, in order to continue to win at the highest level. It is not better or worse than the way he has taught his teams to play in the past, it is just different, and it speaks well of Calhoun as a coach.

UConn does not have guards in the same mold as in the past. Marcus Williams is a gifted lefty passer and handler, and can score, but he is not the speed merchant his predecessors were. He does not push the break like Khalid El-Amin or Taliek Brown, he passes ahead. He is not a great penetrator; rather, he plays with change of pace. He does not put great pressure on the ball; he has to try and control the handler and funnel the ball into help instead.

Rashad Anderson is not a penetrator or slasher, he is a shooter who has not yet shot it well. While Calhoun may not have the same kind of guards he dreams about, they are still very good, albeit different.

Calhoun, though, also has a frontline the Boston Celtics might like. Josh Boone, Charlie Villanueva, Rudy Gay, Ed Nelson and Hilton Armstrong are all big and strong, and take up a lot of space.

The Huskies now resemble an inside power team, and Calhoun has decided to mold them into being just that. UConn is not as good right now as it will be in March, but when the Huskies get there, look out.

When Williams figures out how he can be most effective with this type of team (with Calhoun whispering sweet swear words in his ear when he gets off the right path), and when Rashad Anderson starts hitting shots (and he will), UConn will become a major contender.

Boone is a special player. He can run, he has great hands, and he is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. Boone is scoring down low with more reliable post moves, and he leads the Big East in rebounding, offensive rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots.

Villanueva is a big time talent who is maturing into a great college player. He can face up, post, and run the floor, and he is also blocking shots and rebounding at a high level. The knock on Villanueva out of high school was that he was soft, and didn't want to work hard. Under Calhoun, he has dispelled that notion, and has really improved his work ethic.

Gay is a unique talent, and has no idea how good he can be. Long and athletic, Gay moves with incredible smoothness, and can jump out of the gym. He has a good pull-up game, and is, in my judgment, the best freshman in the country.

Nelson adds bulk and a hard-nosed physicality, and Armstrong is long, athletic and can block shots.

Jim Calhoun now knows what his team is, and that is a power team. George Blaney, Calhoun's sage advisor on the bench, said that Calhoun is starting to believe in this team, which is a bit scary, because Calhoun never seems happy – teams can always be better.

The overall point is, there is not just one way to play. The great coaches adjust to personnel, and play the way that gives them the best chance to win. The best coaches are thinking not about how to play, but how to win.

Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.

Jay Bilas

College Basketball analyst