Sunday, February 8, 2015

How Could Someone Prefer College Basketball?

Overheard over Thanksgiving (yes that’s when I started this post) in my family was “I can’t watch the NBA until the playoffs”. While I happen to fall on the exact opposite side of that perspective, I know alot of people feel that way. I realized that the basketball is indisputably better in the NBA, but a bunch of other factors contribute to the college game becoming preferable as an overall viewing experience.

How could anyone prefer college basketball to the NBA, when the NBA, by its nature, has so much better talent? Let’s count the ways.


The structure of the NBA is such that it isn’t really conducive to rivalries. No small set of teams block your path to the playoffs because of the 16 team playoff and the insignificance of divisions.

In college, you play each team in your conference (generally speaking) twice, and it means a great deal to your season, your playoff hopes, and your fan base.

The rivalry in college is constant. Duke will always rival UNC, Michigan - Michigan State, USC - UCLA, and so on. What’s even better, a team’s fortunes can change rapidly because of the ever-changing rosters. The NBA, by contrast, is more set in its rosters but fluid in “rivalries”. LeBron will always have some rivals - some real, some manufactured by ESPN - because he’s always on a good team. But the teams challenging him, and even the team he plays for, tends to change.


Football games are such a big deal because a team only plays 12 games in college, 16 in the pros. As a result, every game carries a great deal of significance. College basketball exists with that same principle when compared to the NBA. 30ish games on the one side, 82 on the other. Even if the players cared 100% all of the time in both instances, as a fan you’re much more interested in a game that occurs less often, because it feels like it means something. And when the NBA players are criticized for seeming disinterested at times, can you really blame them? That is a grind, man.


You can love a city, but you can’t attend it. You can’t walk around it and live it and do all sorts of good and bad things, and come out better on the other side 4 years later.

That’s why, in college, fans tend to feel like they’re rooting for something bigger than just a player or a team. And everyone knows people that went to most of these schools, making it much easier for the non-basketball fan to take in a few minutes of St. John’s vs. Georgetown than, say, Portland vs. Memphis.

And as for the players, their team is their team. They can’t be traded or sign elsewhere (though transferring is growing), and when we as fans watch it, we perceive them to be more invested in their team and in their school than the pros. We have a special connection to our school, and we perceive the players to have that too. I’d argue that there’s just no way a 19-year old freshmen feels more connection and pride to his team than a 10-year NBA veteran does for his situation, but I can see why that perception exists.

Greed & Sloth

People believe that a loss of innocence takes place once a player signs a pro contract. “Those players just care about money, whereas college players are playing for pride and because they love the game”. Any thinking person knows it’s far more complex than that, but that thinking isn’t entirely wrong, either. Given the lack of urgency in the NBA regular season, it’s easy to think that these players are just coasting because their money is secure. We want to believe every player has Larry Bird’s mentality, and believing that becomes a lot easier within the “purity” of college.

The Appearance of Defense

You’ve heard it a million times: no one plays defense in the NBA. But it’s also said of basketball that a good offense beats a good defense, so why couldn’t it be that? I always laugh when people yearn for yesteryear in the NBA and cite defense as a reason, when scoring is down considerably in today’s game compared to previous decades.

In college, the only thing a coach can really bank on is athleticism, and therefore defense is such a focus for so many teams. In other words, you can’t build a program on 3 point shooting because you’re not always guaranteed to have good shooters. So when the shooting isn’t as good, defense is more of a coach’s focus, and each game is 1/30 instead of 1/82, it makes sense that the college game would appear to have much better, or at least more intense, defense.

So where in college defense is part of many a coach’s “system”, in the pros few coaches have true systems. When they do, it’s usually an offensive philosophy instead of a defensive one. Because when you have the players, why not? To those that say the NBA is just iso-ball, I throw this video right in your face!


Remember that greed thing? It permeates into the crowd too. NBA tickets are expensive and tend to be all tied up in corporate connections. That feels a lot less fun than a rowdy student body. And the arenas that house the crowds are largely meaningless in the NBA, whereas college has these mystical locations rich with history and character. Rupp. Allen Fieldhouse. Cameron Indoor. The Palestra. The Carrier Dome etc...

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