NCAA vs. NBA: Settling the Annual Basketball Fan Battle

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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.

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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.

The villains of March Madness, those spoilers who threaten to rob the tournament of its magical moments and Cinderella stories, are the heavyweights stacked, in many cases, with future NBA players. Some of these schools, like Kentucky, are seen as little more than finishing schools for elite prep players. They attract the best players because coach John Calipari makes it his goal to turn them loose on the pros as fast as possible. The tournament's love of the unpredictable, the unlikely, and above all else, the underdog, is in many ways a refutation of a basketball meritocracy.

NFL fans embrace the "any given Sunday" doctrine, which gives any honest effort a chance. The very revealing "madness" of March Madness is its negative—that, in a perfect world, the mighty shall fall, the meek shall inherit the Final Four, and we will all be happier (if poorer) for it.

Invariably, when the world gets all high on March Madness, there will be loud pronouncement that this isn't only the best sports has to offer, it's also basketball at its finest. This ignores, of course, the fact that most of these games are borderline unwatchable, or at least those that come closest to fulfilling the March Madness ideal. Bad teams rarely wallop very good ones, so upsets are slow-mo, grinding affairs, characterized by lots of late free throws, much in the way of ambient drama and tense close-ups, and above all else, an outcome that writes its own headline. If the bad guys win a close one, it's all been for naught: scraggly process in the service of evil. If the confusion train goes roaring along? It was all worth it, we have no idea what's next, and a sporting event has been turned into something between a roller coast and a shock corridor.

I'm not trying to discourage you from enjoying the tournament. On the contrary, these are all wonderful, lovable qualities, as long as they're kept in perspective. As in: People of the world, whatever this is, it is not basketball. College or otherwise.

It's easy to counter with a critique of the NBA's own playoffs: A long slog that is often referred to as a "second season". The key difference is, it doesn't invite fans to forget about all that came before—to hope for its overturn, even. The NBA season is about an unbroken narrative, one that winds from beginning to end and takes its sweet time to unfold. College ball stakes its credibility on a tournament that invites anarchy and shock. One seems safe in its skin; the other prays for gimmickry. Is one superior to the other? It's comparing apples and oranges.

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Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of the basketball writers’ collective FreeDarko.com 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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