- Jay Bilas, College Basketball analyst
There have been some loud whispers in the travel basketball subculture that UCLA's Ben Howland runs a slowdown offense that fails to showcase young prospects for the NBA.
Some AAU types with an agenda whisper in the ears of UCLA recruits that Howland's penchant for calling set plays and his tight reins on offense don't allow these hot prospects to show the NBA what they can do, and the reduced possessions keep great talents from revealing themselves to the next level. In short, the word among the AAU cognoscenti is that Howland holds great players back.
On the surface, it seems to make sense. UCLA is not a high-possession offensive team, especially compared to North Carolina, which is a fast-paced running team that some might perceive as having a style of play that would allow it to showcase players. Players like Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday seem to be having better pro careers than college careers, so it must be because Howland would not let them play their games. Remember how Dean Smith was tarred with the reputation of being the only guy who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points? Same type of thing, right?
Excuse my French, but the perceptions about UCLA's style are absolute crap. Howland has been a winner everywhere he has been, but especially at UCLA. He guided the Bruins to three straight Final Fours while placing numerous players in the NBA. While there is no argument that a team like North Carolina plays a different -- and faster -- style under Roy Williams than Howland does at UCLA, there is no empirical evidence that the style difference negatively affects the NBA future or draft status of Bruins players relative to Tar Heels players. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.
From 2006 to 2009, UCLA and North Carolina were two of college basketball's most dominant programs. During that period, UCLA went to three Final Fours, while North Carolina went to two Final Fours and won a national championship. Let's take a look at the numbers and see if Howland's players suffered from being held back:
• In 2005-06, UCLA was 32-7 and advanced to the NCAA championship game. The Bruins averaged 67.7 points per game on 47 percent shooting and gave up just 57.7 points per game on 42 percent shooting. That season, Arron Afflalo led the Bruins in scoring at 16 points per game, taking 439 shots in 33.4 minutes per game. Jordan Farmar averaged 13 points per game off 420 shots in 30 minutes per game. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute averaged nine points per game off 249 shots in 29.5 minutes per game. Darren Collison averaged almost six points per game off 194 shots in 19.1 minutes per game.
That same season, North Carolina was 23-8 and lost in the NCAA tournament to George Mason. The Tar Heels averaged 79 points per game and gave up 68.6 ppg. Tyler Hansbrough led the Heels in scoring at 18.9 points on 349 shots in 30.4 minutes per game. Reyshawn Terry averaged 14.3 points on 306 shots in 24.2 minutes per game. David Noel averaged 12.9 points on 297 shots in 33.7 minutes per game.
In the 2006 NBA draft, Farmar was selected as the 26th overall pick in the first round. UCLA's Ryan Hollins was selected in the second round with the 50th overall selection. Noel was selected in the second round with the 39th overall selection.
• In 2006-07, UCLA was 30-6 and advanced to the Final Four. The Bruins averaged 71 points per game and allowed 60 ppg. Afflalo led the Bruins in scoring at 16.9 ppg on 456 shots in 32.9 minutes. Josh Shipp averaged 13 ppg on 344 shots in 30.1 minutes per game.
Collison averaged 13 points per game on 298 shots in 33.0 minutes. Mbah a Moute averaged 8.2 points per game on 236 shots in 29.9 minutes. Westbrook averaged 3.4 ppg on 105 shots in nine minutes per game.
That same season, North Carolina was 31-7 and lost to Georgetown in the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels averaged 85.7 points per game and gave up 68.6 points per game. Hansbrough led North Carolina in scoring at 18 ppg on 434 shots in 29.9 minutes. Brandan Wright averaged 14.7 points on 353 shots in 27.4 minutes. Wayne Ellington averaged 11.7 points on 379 shots in 24 minutes per game. Ty Lawson averaged 10 points on 282 shots in 26 minutes. Terry averaged 9.7 points on 263 shots in 21 minutes. Danny Green averaged 5.2 points on 158 shots in 13.6 minutes.
In the 2007 NBA draft, Wright was selected in the first round with the eighth selection. Afflalo was selected in the first round with the 27th selection. Terry was selected in the second round with the 44th selection.
• In 2007-08, UCLA was 35-4 and advanced to the Final Four. The Bruins averaged 73 ppg and allowed 59 ppg. Kevin Love led the Bruins in scoring at 17.5 points on 406 shots in 29.6 minutes per game. Collison averaged 14.5 points on 335 shots in 34.7 minutes. Westbrook averaged 12.7 points on 391 shots in 33.8 minutes. Shipp averaged 12.2 points on 389 shots in 34 mpg. Mbah a Moute averaged 8.8 points on 245 shots in 29 minutes.
That same season, North Carolina was 36-3 and advanced to the Final Four. The Tar Heels averaged 89 ppg and allowed 73 ppg. Hansbrough led the Tar Heels in scoring at 22.6 points on 535 shots in 33 minutes. Ellington averaged 16.6 points on 507 shots in 31 minutes. Lawson averaged 12.7 points on 272 shots in 25 minutes. Green averaged 11.5 points on 343 shots in 22 minutes.
In the 2008 NBA draft, Westbrook was selected in the first round with the fourth overall selection. Love was selected in the first round with the fifth selection. Mbah a Moute was selected in the second round with the 37th selection.
• In 2008-09, UCLA was 26-9 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Bruins averaged 76 ppg and allowed 64 points per game. Shipp led the Bruins in scoring at 14.5 points per game on 337 shots in 29.2 minutes. Collison averaged 14.4 points on 344 shots in 31.5 minutes. Holiday averaged 8.5 points on 249 shots in 27.1 minutes.
That same season, North Carolina was 34-4 and won the national championship. The Tar Heels averaged 89 ppg and gave up 72 ppg. The Heels were led in scoring by Hansbrough at 20.7 points on 434 shots in 30 minutes per game. Lawson averaged 16.6 points on 342 shots in 29.9 minutes. Ellington averaged 15.8 points on 445 shots in 30 minutes. Green averaged 13.1 points on 391 shots in 27 minutes.
In the 2009 NBA draft, Hansbrough was selected in the first round with the 13th overall selection. Holiday was selected in the first round with the 17th selection. Collison was selected in the first round with the 21st selection. Ellington was selected in the first round with the 28th selection. Green was selected in the second round with the 46th selection.
During the four-year period examined above, UCLA had eight players drafted into the NBA, six of them in the first round. North Carolina had seven players drafted into the NBA, four of them in the first round. So let's wrap our heads around this one: Howland has been holding his players back with his offense by having more players selected in higher positions than North Carolina during the same time period? And the Bruins that were drafted had a comparable number of shots in more minutes, on average. If only other coaches across the country would hold their players back, imagine how high they would be selected in the NBA draft.
This preposterous urban myth about UCLA and Howland is just that, a myth. It is based upon a perception that Westbrook and Holiday are having better pro careers than they did college careers, and that the only "logical" explanation must be that Howland held his stars back. That is nonsense. The more likely explanation is that Howland is not kissing the tails of those believing themselves to be influential in the summer basketball culture, and they are spreading nonsense about Howland and his offensive philosophy.
By the way, during the time periods examined above, Westbrook was the highest draft selection and was taken higher than every North Carolina player of that period. And Holiday was taken before Lawson, Ellington and Green, despite the fact that he was being "held back."
The truth is there is no system or offense that can hold a good player back or hide him from the NBA. The Princeton offense run by Georgetown coach John Thompson III could not hide Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert or Greg Monroe. And Howland hardly held back Love, Westbrook, Afflalo, Farmar, Mbah a Moute or Collison. The NBA may whiff on a prospect here and there, but you cannot hide talent from the league. If you can play, the NBA will find you.
Speaking of Princeton: Remember when the Princeton offense was all the rage? Some of the biggest advocates of the offense would not talk much about it and liked the mystery that surrounded it, thinking that it gave them an advantage. Now with teams in every league running Princeton principles, some are complaining that they are being negatively tagged by the Princeton offense as if it is some sort of slur. I have said this before, and it applies now: The Princeton offense is a good offense but it is not some magical system that will win games that other well-run offenses won't. Whether it is motion, flex, reverse action, the triangle offense, a set play offense or the Princeton offense, it matters how the offense is run, not the offense itself. There is nothing inferior about the Princeton offense. But there is nothing superior about it, either.
Transfer rules: Reasonable minds can differ on such matters, but I believe that the transfer rule is pretty simple. Transfers should be made to sit out one season upon leaving one school for another. Period. The transfer rule exists for reasons of competitive balance, not for punishment. If immediate eligibility is available, players will "team shop" and will be subject to poaching and all sorts of unintended consequences. There have been several recent cases in which players have essentially switched teams to pursue a degree not offered at a player's current school or to get closer to a sick immediate family member. Those players should still have to sit out a year. Nobody is stopping anyone from attending any school or transferring. The only hurdle that has to be cleared is sitting out a season. That is not too much of a burden, and it is fair. But it has to be applied to everyone across the board.
Isiah Thomas flap: Wow. The sitting coach of Florida International took a position as a consultant with an NBA team, and many people got their undies in a bunch. It was questioned as a potential violation of NCAA rules, and it was seen as a competitive advantage. Have we gone so crazy over the "spirit" of the NCAA rules that we looked at Thomas' short-lived role with the New York Knicks as an affront to the purity of college athletics? I don't think that I would have taken that job in a similar situation, but it isn't illegal, it isn't an advantage and it isn't unprecedented. Does anyone remember that Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt served as a player personnel consultant with the WNBA's Washington Mystics from 2002-05? Summitt was credited with helping build the Mystics' personnel system during her tenure there, but I don't recall anyone jumping up and down complaining about it. Perhaps it is because it is just not that big of a deal. Does anyone really believe that Florida International is going to snag recruits from Kentucky because Thomas is cozy with the Knicks? If Thomas hits it big in college basketball, he will do it the way everyone else does it. He will succeed in his league, crack the NCAA tournament and move on to a better job. No coach of any reputation can overwhelm the system by reputation or with a consulting position. It has happened before, and the Republic still stands.
Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.