March is the month when college basketball eclipses all the other sports that battle for viewers in the USA. March Madness is a strobing of matches, where college teams from around the country play 32 games in as many days. And while debates on presidential candidates might be dominating the news right now, at home many Americans will be arguing a very different topic: which is better, the NBA or college basketball?
Like all heated debates, this one finds its longevity in the fact that it is genuinely unsolvable. The NBA features elite athletes in their prime, a money hurricane where showmanship and ego as are towering as the talent of the players. College basketball, or the NCAA, is home to fanatical supporters of teams that play with more grit and teamwork to make up for their technical shortcomings. Both competitions draw huge viewing numbers, and both have ardent support. But which is truly the better game to get behind?
What supporters of the NCAA say…
Plenty of fans will argue that the NCAA is the better of the two competitions for a number of reasons. Primarily, it is seen as a more pure form of the game. While it might be a big money sport, the players are semi-professional at best. Tired of the relentless, overblown commercialiSation of the NBA, they prefer a sport which focuses on men who are playing both for the love of the game and for their futures. These young players have one eye on the NBA and know that should they get drafted by even one of the smaller teams, they will be set for life. They strain every sinew to make the scouts take notice.
But while they might be thinking about a future jackpot, loyalty is central to the attraction of the competition. Most of the college basketballers are members of the university they represent. This produces a greater perceived loyalty, which translates to a better connection to the fans and their team. Moreover, in many cases the universities are far older than the sterile franchises of the NBA. They are more rooted in the community, and therefore they become part of something bigger than their ambitions. College basketballers that go on to make a name tend to be revered whenever they return to their home court for years to come.
Another reason to love the game is the teamwork on show. Less technically gifted and rawer, the players at college level are forced to rely more on teamwork than their NBA counterparts are. They have to work together, drilling flowing team moves that prioritise the collective and focus far more on the whole court. Scores are lower at this level because defence is just as important as attack in the NCAA.
The whole affair is much more analogue than in the NBA. Typically, the higher profile competition’s courts are drenched in the flashing of advertisers and artificial noise piped into the building to synthesise a full and teeming house. In a college game, you can hear the squeak of rubber on the court, the thud of the players colliding, and the swish of the net. The focus of the action is tighter, and therefore more legitimate.
The season is built for more intensity as well. March Madness is, well, mad. Games come fast, and the first-time elimination system means that fancied teams crash out regularly. Every season seems to throw up a Cinderella team which upsets the odds.
But here is what an NBA supporter’s might say…
The NBA is home to some pretty big egos, but that might be because it is home to some pretty big talents. All the debate over purity and teamwork comes to nothing in the face of the nature of sport.
Fact. Any NBA team would crush a college team six times over. Even at their very best, college basketballers are in their youth. They can’t match the experience of the NBA players, even if they could match their skills. Sport is about flair, spectacle and witnessing the very best. This is what the NBA provides, every week. College basketball is slower, more defensive and much less technically skilled.
The whole argument about the how teamwork in the NCAA makes it a more pure sport is redundant when you consider that the core reasoning behind this approach is that the players simply aren’t good enough. They need to grind out victories. Why be defensive when you just have to outscore the opposition? NBA players can create moments of magic that blitz them beyond the tightest of defences.
NBA fans point to the low scoring in the college game as a reason to prefer the professional version. This is caused by the disparity between clock shots. In the NBA, players have 24 second to make a shot, whereas in the NCAA they are provided with a more leisurely 35 seconds. College games tend to clock out at about 50-60 points; NBA games around the 80-90 level. That is a lot more action at the hoop.
So while the NCAA people might be making a good case, they are faced with one sorry fact. The games aren’t as good.
One last fact. In his last year of college, Michael Jordan scored an average of 19.6 points per game. The following year, he scored an average of 28.2 playing for the Chicago Bulls. Did Jordan suddenly get nine points better playing against radically better defenders? Or was he stultified by the college version?
By Timothy Mottram