We’re not taking issue with personal preferences, the idea that one’s opinion can be “better” than another’s or the honest truth that college basketball can be entertaining as all get-out.
But the idea that college ball does anything more than hold a candle to the NBA? Come on.
It’s not the fact that some basketball fans prefer the NCAA style to the pros that bothers us. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and just because the NBA offers a “better” brand of basketball it hardly means we should only be paying attention to the game at its highest form. After all, most of us prefer the stylings of Chuck Berry to the men he kindly asked to roll over, even if the rollers in question came through with music that was ostensibly “better” than Berry’s three-chord works of genius.
If all we heard were NCAA fans claiming that they prefer the college game to the pro, then that would be one thing. We don’t hear that. We hear them claiming that the college game is a more fundamentally pure style of basketball. That the competition is more engaging to watch because the kids are somehow trying harder or playing the game for purer reasons.
The NCAA apologists don’t make a plea for preferences, not that we’ve heard. They make statements, and the statement (unimpeachable, to their eyes), is that the college game is “better” than what the pros churn out from October until June.
And they’re nuts.
Forced into denigrating the work of unpaid students in order to further define this brand of fetishism, here’s what I saw on Final Four Saturday, as the undisputed four best teams in NCAA hoops took to the court:
Dribbles picked up a scant few feet over the half-court line. Missed lay-ins. Missed free throws. Legal traveling that would force Billy Packer into conniptions had he seen Allen Iverson get away with the same move. Bad footwork. Blown assignments on defense. Reaching, slapping at the opponent rather than moving one’s feet, and a whole lot of small guys. Fundamentals executed by youngsters who haven’t the time nor ability nor hours in a week to match the work put in by their pro counterparts practicing the same ideals.
Here’s what I also saw: two incredibly entertaining games. College basketball, even with a host of would-be college sophomores and juniors languishing on anonymous NBA teams, at its absolute peak. Great basketball, because after all, it’s a great game.
But it can’t be “better” than the pro version. Not with players who spend just about every waking moment (save for the post-midnight, pre-dawn hours, we submit) practicing, sleeping, going through a shootaround, and playing games from early October until spring or beyond.
Not with adults who have honed their respective crafts, who have to improve in order to earn that next contract, and who have to showcase team skills in order to grab late-career contracts once the skills fade.
On the pro level, I see incredibly well-executed defenses, and exacting offenses that have become more and more potent over the last four seasons. I see intensity, and when that intensity isn’t there, it sticks out like you wouldn’t believe. As a result, the less-intense tend to languish on the bench, because the man in charge doesn’t have to answer to a booster or student section, or worry about his second-leading scorer leaving the team in order to make a paycheck.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. The NCAA game is played by young adults. Kids. Pups. It’s supposed to be plucky. It’s supposed to be crummy on some levels, and exhilarating and picture-perfect on others. It’s supposed to be a learning experience for coaches, players and referees (you think NBA refs are bad, check these guys out. Lesson? It’s a hard game to call).
Beyond that, the 400-pound gorilla must be addressed: We’re rightfully gaga over March Madness because we have a stake in these games.
Whether you’re a high roller dropping thousands of dollars on a bracket entry, someone trying to gain the respect of 30 other co-workers in the free office pool or a Louisville alum looking for the perfect “told ’ya so” in the face of that jerk neighbor with the Tennessee orange flying from his front porch, the personal influences this tournament has on our lives can’t help but make the game seem, well, better.
It isn’t. And though it’s a shame that a pairing between Sweet Sixteen hopefuls (regardless of the tournament’s declining ratings) will receive as much attention as some Mavericks/Suns Game 5 next May, it’s the nature of the beast.
A beast that shouldn’t have to aspire to anything greater than it is. It can be just fine on its own, without the bleating of NCAA talking heads who seem to want to define the tournament’s greatness on a level established by athletes in their prime who are compensated for the revenue they create. At best, that noise seems disingenuous. At worst, it seems self-serving while the 20-year olds do all the work.
Monday’s NCAA Final should be enjoyed and appreciated for what it is, and shouldn’t have its merits judged along the same lines as its older (and often tackier, but ultimately bigger and better) brother.