Every March, like clockwork, prominent NBA writers snark their heads off about the problems with college basketball and March Madness as both a sport and an institution. Teams play too slow (accurate), amateurism is a sham (accurate), college coaches are snakes (sometimes accurate), the 30-second shot clock is a travesty (accurate).
In defense of their preferred version of basketball, college fans will lob rocks right back at NBA heads. The season is too long (accurate), the crowds suck (sometimes accurate), effort is inconsistent (accurate), the stakes in most individual games are low (accurate), the endgame is predictable (fairly accurate), there are too many Plumlees (how dare you). And now we have a war.
This is pointless! Both versions of the sport are good! Since this is primarily an NBA column and March Madness is underway, here are five reasons college basketball is wonderful.
1. High stakes
This is the single best thing about the NCAA tournament: every game matters. One bad night against even a lesser opponent can derail a championship. Tensions run high. There are a bevy of make-or-break moments, and in those moments you can see the stress pour out of these young adults as sweat and out of their coaches as screams. It’s riveting! It’s probably not healthy for anyone involved, but alas.
This type of mass-scale, high-stakes competition is something other sports have difficulty replicating. College football essentially turns it into a full season, which dilutes some of the stress that fuels the condensed NCAA tournament.
Similarly, the NFL playoffs stretch the ulcer-inducing stakes over a month. Other sports use series to decide champions. The World Cup might be the closest cousin in terms of major sporting events that can match the stakes college basketball’s big moment brings. Even that has pool play and far fewer teams.
2. Sensory overload
That team count is an important factor in why March Madness works so well: there’s just so much happening. For the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament, it isn’t just the fact that there are high-stakes games happening, it’s that there are multiple high-stakes games happening on any given day (and through the first week, at any given time).
This also acts to lessen the impact of the inevitable boring games that happen in any sport. If a certain 1-vs.-16 game isn’t providing any sort of drama, there’s a close 4 vs. 13 or a tight 8 vs. 9 happening on another channel.
The stacked-up games in the NBA playoffs only last a week or so before we’re down to one match at a time — which is nice for its own reasons, of course. But when there’s a blowout or inconsequential game (like Game 4 in a 3-0 series) in the NBA playoffs, you’re stuck with it unless you flip off the television and re-engage with society. (Ugh.)
This extends to the broader March Madness circle when the conference tournaments are all happening at the same time. If the Big Sky semifinals aren’t scratching your itch, there’s a Big East battle to decide a bubble team’s fate two clicks away. It’s a veritable cornucopia of manufactured drama, and it’s wonderful.
A close cousin of the sensory overload is the serendipity you find in the tournament. Let’s put this delicately: Most people watching the NCAA tournament don’t watch regular-season college basketball too closely. Even those who do aren’t watching much Princeton, South Dakota State, New Orleans, or Northern Kentucky.
Draftniks know the hot one-and-done prospects to watch no matter where they play, and mid-majors like Gonzaga, Wichita State, and St. Mary’s get plenty of ESPN airtime all winter long. But the players change every three or four years (if not sooner), and those small-conference schools are completely new to me and you.
This provides a good deal of serendipity. There are also cult heroes who grab their 15 minutes of fame. There are surprise Cinderellas, upsets, mysterious foreign-born players, frenetic coaches. You really just never know what you’re going to get on a minute-by-minute basis.
The NBA, for all its joys, is a far more controlled environment. There is a different type of serendipity — epic plays by the best athletes in the world, especially — but it’s not as random or spontaneous as what we see in the college game.
4. Finite opportunity
We talk about championship windows in the NBA quite a bit. That’s kind of cute when you think about it. In college basketball, players are there from one to four years. That’s it. That creates a serious dose of desperation every year.
This isn’t to say teams like the Clippers or Raptors aren’t desperate in the playoffs. Most teams are. But there’s typically another chance for contender-level squads. The Clippers have had plenty of bites at the apple, and might still have more to come depending on how the current year’s quest ends. The Raptors are on Year 2 of serious contention (though there are questions as to whether they are still serious contenders in the East).
For many college programs that aren’t Duke or Kentucky — with perpetual cycles of top recruits — the opportunity to win a title is finite. For the players, it is even more so. There really is no next year for most of them, especially the vast majority who will not play professional basketball in any setting. This is the last chance at eternal athletic glory. That desperation can be palpable.
5. Against polish
The NBA is extraordinarily polished, and more so every year. Coaches and players devote their lives to the sport. Play sets, defensive systems, even the production of the games as entertainment events is all polished and professional, as it should be.
The NCAA and its media partners in the CBS and Turner family of networks certainly go to great lengths to polish the tournament up as best as they can. There is, of course, “One Shining Moment.” But these are college kids, and most of them are not polished.
College coaches are, for the most part, not polished. You have your Jay Wrights, John Caliparis, and Shaka Smarts, but there are always a few maniacs sweating through their ill-chosen light Oxfords and fumbling their clipboards.
There’s a roughness to the whole sport of college basketball. We talk about noise and signal and with a single-elimination tournament mixed with scores of unreliable actors, college basketball is full of noise. That’s fun. That’s exciting. You really don’t know what will happen next.
College basketball is very different than the NBA. Each is wonderful in its way. Appreciate that we can enjoy both. If you don’t enjoy one or the other, that’s cool. But it doesn’t make you cool. And in fact, sharing your snobbish tendencies one way or the other tends to make you look like a jerk. Take it from someone with experience looking like a jerk.
Click here to view the full story on SB Nation.