2.21.2011

THE COLLEGE YEARS

I'm from Ohio, where football is king and the rest of the three major sports take a back seat, no matter if it's during the season or the off season. We like our football a lot in Ohio and when I moved to Louisville around five years ago I found out that people in this state love their basketball with an equally large heart. Both the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville are storied college basketball programs and I had to get used to the fact that while I wanted to debate the spread option, Tampa two defense, and zone blocking, folks around here were more likely to change the subject to the full court press, the 2-3 zone, and boxing out.

It didn't bother me at first, different athletic strokes for different folks after all, but over the years I've come to resent the implication made by a lot of die-hard college basketball fans that the game they love is not only superior to the NBA (which it isn't), but also superior to college football as well. This is a barroom argument in it's truest sense of course, the old my "insert team/sport here" is better than your "insert team/sport here." So after having more than a few of those barroom arguments and with March Madness looming on the horizon, I thought I would make the case for college hoops not being all it's cracked up to be.

Hopefully this will be less of an indictment of college basketball on the whole, and more a lesson in how the product the NCAA puts on the court can be improved and why the NBA is still a much more entertaining viewing experience for this writer. That said, I am going to organize things by putting numbers and bold text in front of my points. Hopefully, it makes me look smarter. Here's why the NCAA doesn't quite stack up:

1. The one-and-done rule The rule that a player cannot enter the NBA draft without having first played at least one season of college basketball is one of the most ridiculous and misguided things the NBA has ever done, and the NCAA's lack of real resistance to it's implementation is a large reason as to why the competition in college basketball is becoming watered down.  The specifics of the rule for domestic players are that they be 19 years old the year of the draft and a year out of high school, so for all intents and purposes college is foisted upon a lot of guys that probably don't want to go in the first place, as Michael Wilbon can tell you. I'm with Mike on this one, and as he illustrates in that piece, so are most college coaches. They don't like babysitting guys for a year only to see them bolt to the NBA post haste.

There is no longer any time for fans to get to know and love a team's superstars, because for the most part those players with the big stars next to their names are gone by the time their first year of classes is complete. Even if a player with NBA level talent decides to stick around two years instead of one, that doesn't give programs and coaches the time to build elite teams that can contend for years at a time. Coaches and recruiters are now the stewards of revolving doors at their gyms, where players show up, show out, and ship out before they have time to mature as athletes or as people. What's left is a system that doesn't give fans a chance to build a relationship with their favorite players and doesn't give coaches the time to create elite teams. This year's parity in college hoops is testament to this fact, where in the waning days of February, a great team is still yet to be found.

There are exceptions of course, but for the most part even college teams that have found a way to be consistently successful have no real consistency in their line-ups. Teams and programs that used to be perennially dominant are miring in mediocrity. North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State et al are no longer superior to their competition year in and year out, but are left to find a group of super freshmen to make a title run in the odd year their recruiting class was truly dominant. 

Super freshmen and sophomores now leave before they have even come close to polishing their game or becoming men. This not only hurts the level of competition at the collegiate level, but forces NBA teams to draft players as works in progress (not to pick on UK, but the two stars they just sent to the NBA are both in need of some seasoning--DeMarcus Cousins is a foul machine with maturity issues and John Wall, despite his freakish gifts, still suffers from a serious turnover problem, just as a couple of examples). So, kids are drafted on potential and not ready for prime-time, something that diminishes the talent pool in the NCAA and stunts growth in the NBA.

The solution to this problem comes from football, where you can't enter the NFL draft until three years after you graduate from high school. This means that college football is stocked with juniors and seniors that have NFL level talent, with freshman and sophomores of exceeding ability alongside them to fill out the ranks. The talent and maturity comparison between the two sports is not even an argument at this point. Because players are forced to remain in college, football presents a better product that is far closer to the level of competition of it's professional counterpart and much more fun to watch during the regular season. Then again, football doesn't have March Madness (or a playoff of any kind in it's highest division), which is the only thing that keeps college hoops relevant--more on that in a minute.

2. Pace A friend of mine told me that because I grew up watching Big Ten basketball for the most part, that I'm biased on this point, but I think anyone who watches the NBA and college basketball with equality knows that the college game is sllloooowww. First of all, someone needs to get rid of the 35 second shot clock and move it closer to the NBA's 24 second clock. I can't stand watching a team swing the ball around the perimeter for 27 to 30 seconds and then dump it in to their bigs or hoist up a three pointer just before the shot clock expires. I shudder to think what watching college basketball was like before the shot clock, but I have a feeling it was like soccer with a ball you can touch.

This sort of pace makes the game a lot harder to watch and a lot slower than it's professional counterpart. I know that the NBA and NCCA levels of talent show much disparity, but that doesn't mean college kids wouldn't be able to play up to their talent level if the tempo were pushed. The 35 second clock creates a grinding pace that is only accentuated by zone defenses, which thrive on not letting the opposing offense get a good look at a shot without a drive and dish or a particularly quick and accurate pass (most likely as the shot clock winds down...see what I'm saying here?). Even if your team is blessed with a kid that can create his own shot, the game's pace probably won't let him affect the contest the way he would if things were moving faster.

3. Defense Okay, so this point isn't so much about something that college hoops lacks, but more about a sentiment I'm tired of hearing: that they don't play defense in the NBA. In case you are among the misguided folks that think that all those good young lads in college hoops do is play D while their NBA counterparts just cash checks and slam dunk uncontested, allow me to retort. You may not have noticed, but NBA rosters are crafted from the best and brightest of college basketball talent along with international studs, and as such boast the fastest and most athletic defenders in the world.

If you can't play defense in the NBA, you don't win, it's that simple. And as an individual, there is no way to become a legitimate franchise player or NBA legend without being able to D-up the guy opposite you. Before you start in on me, I know there are exceptions. Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki--these guys like defense about as much as the aforementioned AI likes practice, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Look at LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard--guys that are superstars and the current face of the NBA. They all excel on both ends of the floor, balancing their ability to score with an equal vigor and aptitude on defense. In fact, you could argue that LeBron truly entered into "holy shit" territory when he started making chase-down blocks as much a part of his highlight reels as rim-shaking dunks. And if you need anymore proof, just look at the Celtics and Lakers, the two teams that have won the last three NBA championships and faced-off against each other for two of them. They play defense, tough defense, grinding, violent defense. Having the ability to score is one thing, possessing the will to stop the other team from doing so is what gets you the rings.

4. The three point shot Now this is an NCAA exclusive problem if you ask me. The NBA has it's share of unconscious three point shooters, but rarely do teams that rely solely upon the three point shot succeed deep into the post-season, a direct result of how good the league's defenders are. A zone defense is rarely implemented in the NBA (and only recently became legal), and when it is the intention is only to briefly change what an offense has to look at and is not used as a permanent strategy. The reason? Defenders in the NBA are so good one-on-one. They close out on shooters far better than their college counterparts, slide into double teams much faster and are better at switching off of ball screens and picks.

College kids don't have the same kind of defensive ability and thus have a tougher time getting a hand into a shooter's face. If you can shoot, you can shoot, and having more open shots means that more threes get put into the hoop in college basketball. This makes for a situation where teams are very hard to put away, even when you build a big lead, because a string of threes and a few defensive stops can swing the momentum within a few possessions. Duke has built it's dynasty on this competitive loophole throughout the years, because raining threes and playing better than average defense can build an elite program in college ball, but not the NBA.

Not only that, but the three point line itself is too close to the basket. Can we just back it up to NBA range already? The NCAA's best three point shooters, guys like Jimmer Fredette, won't be affected because they can hit from damn near anywhere inside the half-court line, so move the shot back and make things a little tougher for the average shooter. It will trim a few three pointers off the box score, make game-changing scoring runs a little less rare, and only make the game more competitive.

5. The regular season It just isn't what it used to be. I know the easy reaction here is to point out that post-season play in every sport is better than the regular season, which is true. More is at stake in the post-season, so players and coaches are more invested, the level of competition and talent is higher, and the chance to witness greatness is increased. College basketball benefits from this in spades, with perhaps the premiere post-season in sports thanks to the NCAA Tournament b.k.a. March Madness. The problem is that because the tourney is so captivating and because it grabs the attention of the sporting world so fully, it can render the college basketball regular season less-than watchable in its current state.

This is a result of a subtle combination of the four previous points I put forward, but that's not something you can tell the die-hard college basketball fan. But for a more rounded fan, or one that is focused more on other sports and leagues, I think the argument is valid. The college basketball regular season is but prelude to the tournament, and not much more. It can determine seeding and it's enjoyable to debate which "bubble" teams will or won't make the Big Dance, but the fact remains that the college regular season is only the appetizer to the fantastic drama, excitement, and exuberance of the NCAA Tournament.

I guess my point is, there's nothing wrong with holding off serious viewing until March begins. The conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament itself are what keeps me invested in college basketball, and I don't feel disconnected from the game or that I'm missing out on something important if I only watch my favorite team (or even if I do miss a Buckeye game here and there too). I don't feel this way about college or pro football, the NBA, or the MLB. For those sports and leagues I do feel out of the loop if I'm not on top of the ins and outs of all (read: most) teams and the regular season as a whole.

The only other sport or league that I only watch during the playoffs is the NHL, and you don't want your sport compared to hockey, do you college hoops fans? I jest hockey fans, I do like my sports on ice of course, but there is a serious danger in diminishing interest in your sport if your regular season is not must-see TV. It's the main reason I think that college basketball isn't on par with the games I watch more of, namely the NFL, NBA, and college football. If the NCAA doesn't start making some serious changes, March Madness will be all that's fit to watch. 

That might be just fine for revenue, but it could end up putting college hoops on the verge of losing its heart and soul, something this writer hopes doesn't have to be the case. The hunger and drive of college players and the palpable ferocity of the student sections cheering their guys on is what makes college basketball great, but if the game turns into an increasingly watered-down one year try-out for the NBA, we as fans will all suffer in the long run.

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