Every year during March Madness, I have to sit through people telling me why the NCAA is better than the NBA. How college basketball is much more exciting. How college basketball is so much more fundamental. How college basketball has a higher level of competition than the NBA. How, since college players aren’t paid, they haven’t been spoiled by the game. I have something to say to all those people: bullshit.
The NBA is a much higher quality of basketball than college basketball could ever hope to be. I’m not saying it’s wrong to like the NCAA or even prefer it to the NBA- everybody has their preferences and some people enjoy the NCAA crowds or take pride in their alma maters. That’s fine. But to say that college basketball is better basketball than the NBA is crazy. The college game is more amateur and the quality is much much worse. In an era where March Madness is one of the premier sports events of the year, let’s take a step back and consider why I think so.
Myth #1: College basketball is more exciting
This is probably the biggest myth in this debate. Fans who only watch college basketball during March Madness say things like, “ The game last night was so exciting. NBA games are never like that.” Umm… actually, yes they are. Look, March Madness is a great tournament set up. Teams with great seasons can be out of the playoffs with an off game. There’s basketball all day for the first few days of the tournament and it’s very easy to stay home from work or class and revel in the tournament. But let’s be honest. March Madness is fun for most people because they have a stake in the games. It’s one of the biggest gambling moments of the year. People make multiple brackets, enter different pools, and have a chance of making money or winning contests. When you have such a big stake in the games, they obviously mean more. You’re more likely to stand up, pace your living room, and scream at the TV. That’s a rare feeling if you’re not a die hard fan of a sports’ team. It’s fun to have something as exciting as a basketball game mean so much. And weeks later, when you look back on the tournament while watching the NBA playoffs, it’s really easy to convince yourself you enjoyed those NCAA games more because they were more exciting, not because you had a monetary stake in the game.
Myth #2: Anybody can win the NCAA championship
Single elimination in basketball means anybody can win right? That’s the magic of the NCAA tournament right? In the words of Jim Halpert impersonating Dwight Schrute: “False. Black bear.” Since 1995 the following teams have won a national championship: UCLA, Kentucky, Arizona, UConn, Michigan State, Duke, Maryland, Syracuse, UNC, Florida and Kansas. Kentucky, Duke, UConn, UNC, and Florida have won the title more than once in that time period. That’s the whole list for the last 15 years. Every single one of these teams is either a college basketball powerhouse and/or coached by a college basketball coaching legend. 12 of those seventeen champions were 1 seeds, two were 2 seeds, three were 3 seeds, and only one was a 4 seed. I’m sorry, but a sport where 16 of the last 17 champions were top 3 seeds means that actually, not “anybody” can win the championship game. Now, low-seeded teams can make the Final Four ala George Mason a few years ago or Butler this year. But that generally leads to at least one terrible Final Four game (George Mason lost by 15 against eventual champion Florida and Butler took part in the worst championship game in recent memory, although they did play in an entertaining game against Duke in the finals, so that’s not always the case).
Myth #3: College basketball is more “fundamental”
This claim probably annoys me the most. Fundamental basketball means good defense, good passing, no one on one situations, teammates working together to get the best shot and players trying hard. Duke and UCLA play fundamental basketball, NBA teams do not. That’s the myth and it’s total crap. In fact, we’re going to have to break this down into a few “submyths” (the best part about writing an article is making up words like submyths).
Submyth: The average college basketball game is more fun to watch than the average NBA game
This is a huge misconception which casual college basketball fans try to put forward. Let’s get something straight. Games where the Los Angeles Lakers are beating the Minnesota Timberwolves by 27 points in December are usually boring. You can’t compare these games to the best college basketball teams in the country playing against each other. You can however, compare them to UConn destroying American International in their first game of the season 96-58. And, in that comparison, the NBA still wins because at least at in the Lakers-T’Wolves game, you can appreciate Kevin Love’s ability to play the game. Can you name anybody on American International? Do you even know where American International is? Thought so (it’s located in Springfield, Massachusetts). If you’re going to compare the best college basketball games to the NBA, you’ll have to use Lakers-Heat, Bulls-Spurs, or other games where the best teams play each other.
Submyth: NBA players are selfish and only care about themselves while college players play for the love of the game
When people list the differences between NBA and college players, they always include that college basketball players listen to their coaches, aren’t making any money and play for the love of the game. NBA players, on the other hand, just play for their stats, don’t listen to their coaches, don’t care about the team, and care too much about money. This simply isn’t true.
Yes, there are idiotic NBA players, headcases who think way too highly of themselves and throw championship parades in June after signing with a new team. There are players like Derrick Coleman and Tim Thomas, who never reach their full potential because they stop trying the moment they get paid. But college basketball players aren’t exactly angels. The best players in the country, the ones that know they’re going to the NBA, are treated like stars around campus. They’re superstars in high school, recruited by multiple colleges around the country, maybe approached by agents offering money in the future in shoe deals and contracts. They come to college for one year because of the NBA age requirement and try to get through it without hurting their draft stock. They use the college game as a stepping stone to get into the NBA and that’s it. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this- I think players should do whatever they can to help themselves get to the NBA. But every time I hear “college basketball players are only in it for the love of the game”, I want to vomit.
Submyth: College basketball players play as a team, while NBA players play too much 1 on 1 and don’t care about defense
When you look at the highest level of NBA basketball, you’ll notice that every possession is very important. The point of each NBA possession is to get the highest percentage shot possible against the defense. It’s not to increase any one player’s stats, it’s not to have the best player play one on one, it’s to try and get a high percentage shot attempt and elite NBA offenses are designed to do just that. Sometimes this calls for the point guard driving, reading the defense, and making the best pass. Sometimes this calls for a lot of cutting and passing from different players. And yes, sometimes this calls for one-on-one situations. Good teams run a combination of different plays. Even when teams have the best one on one player in the world, like the Lakers, they try to get everybody involved. Phil Jackson, interviewed in The Jordan Rules, an excellent book by Sam Smith, recalled that before the 1990-1991 season, he decided that Michael Jordan would not win the scoring title that year, that he would pass the ball around during the first 3 and a half quarters and take over at the end when they needed him to. His whole offense was designed for Jordan to have enough energy left at the end of games to go one on one. This makes sense: if you have the best player in the history of the game, you give him the ball when you need to make a shot to win. So yes, there are a lot of one on one situations in basketball, but on the best teams, this is by design.
Now let’s talk about college basketball a little bit. It’s much sloppier than the NBA. The skill level is obviously much lower, and it’s apparent in the final product. Bad passes are made, layups are missed, and mistakes happen. This happens in the NBA also, but to a much lower extent. The biggest difference, and the one I notice on the most, is the inability to make open jump shots. NBA offenses are designed to get an open shot, either preferably in the key or from beyond the 3-point arc. Most perimeter players in the NBA make wide open mid-range shots over 75% of the time (I might have made that stat up, but it sounds about right). Every time I watch a missed wide-open 15-footer in college basketball, I cringe a little bit. I grew up on the NBA product and I’m used to a certain minimum skill level for all players on the court. College players may try to run an offense as efficiently as an NBA team, but the inability for every player to consistently hit jump shots puts them at a severe disadvantage. In addition, the 35 second shot clock is way too long. College players can dribble around the perimeter waiting for things to develop, dribble into the lane, almost lose the ball, recover it, restart the offense, and still have 20 seconds on the clock. The college game badly needs to speed up to a 24 second shot clock.
Convinced yet? Listen, I’m not saying that college basketball isn’t fun. March Madness is a great tournament and it’s obviously a fun two weeks. Alumni have emotional attachments to their college teams and enjoy the chance to cheer those teams on. What I am saying, however, is that college basketball is not better basketball or more fundamental than the NBA. Disagree? Say so in the comments below.