NCAA vs. NBA: Settling the Annual Basketball Fan Battle

Every year at the start of March Madness, there's disagreement over which manifestation of the sport is superior: college or professional. Let's end the argument once and for all.


Reuters/Ellen Ozier/Hans Deryk

Every March, a low-level word-skirmish breaks out between die-hard NBA supporters, and the millions upon millions in thrall to the NCAA tournament. NBA partisans, like myself, will point out that the players are just plain better, the stakes higher, and when the game is good, the quality of play simply unmatched in the professional league. There is such a thing as a quality NBA game that doesn't depend on teleology alone. College fans contend that the NBA is spring-loaded with the same kind of thrills and chills; it celebrates the very same superhumans that March Madness can bring crashing down to Earth; and rugged team-oriented ball is always preferable to watching a great individual performer create for himself. It's an old argument, one that at this point, I'm tired of rehashing. So I will be sitting it out this year. But the truth is, I also just don't see the conflict anymore.

March Madness is fun for what it is. Every year, thousands of man-hours are lost at work, families destroyed by what seem like harmless bracket pools, and if all goes according to plan, upsets happen, chaos reigns, and nothing goes according to plan. Oh, and all those brackets invariably end up a pile of nonsense after the first round or two. This, for many sports fans, is paradise--total chaos, the glory of trashed expectations, and a thrill ride that will make the next few weeks on big adventure.

Holding the tournament up as everything sports should be, though, is like wanting to move into a swimming pool, or children saying they plan to eat nothing but candy. It suspends order and reason; fleeting moments of bravery are rewarded, and long-term accomplishments erased in a split-second. This makes for an event, an occasion, a blast-furnace of television that will send your pulse flying out of the side of your neck. That doesn't mean, though, that this self-described lunacy is a perfect model for sports. Fun, yes. But if you want to compare the NBA and college ball, compare their regular seasons. That the NCAA itself only puts so much stock in the regular season should tell you something.

The NCAA plays a regular season of basketball, lasting from November up until the conference champions were crowned earlier this month. These frantic, single-elimination tournaments, though, are a bridge between months of cumulative failure or success, and a preview of what's to come in March. They bring known rivals into play, but bank on what remains college ball's irresistible premise: Everybody is a winner, and anyone can win, except for the big dogs who unfairly stack their squads and are expected to go all the way, spoiling the party by lending themselves to the most logical outcome.

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Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of the basketball writers’ collective and co-author of the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. His writing has appeared in GQ, Sports Illustrated, the Nation, The Awl, and McSweeney’s.

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