I love the game of basketball. Always has been my favorite. I love both college and pro ball. I make an effort to watch as much college and pro ball as my schedule will allow. I do this basketball podcast with Justin because we genuinely LOVE talking about basketball.
One thing that has really stood out to me the past 3-4 years is how much the pro game has evolved and the college game has fizzled out. The ratings confirm this, but allow me to list a few reasons I feel this way.
1) The One-and-Done Rule
We have this silly rule where even if a player is ready to contribute to an NBA team as judged by NBA scouts, he is not allowed to enter the draft until he plays 1 year of developmental basketball (D-League, European ball, or, you guessed it, NCAA basketball). The biggest chance for exposure comes from playing a year of college basketball as a “student-athlete”. This is KILLING college basketball.
Now college basketball’s most talented players are raw, unrefined freshmen who, given the freedom to do what they really wanted, would already be in the NBA getting to spend 100% of their time learning their craft rather than putting on this facade that they are “student-athletes”. These freshmen “student-athletes” are the face of college basketball, but they are only there for a year, so we don’t get to know them and consequently don’t remember them. Case and point, this year Kentucky is making an historic run. They are loaded with NBA talent (8-9 deep). Can you name 3 of their starters? None of these players are stars in college basketball. Even Anthony Davis and Andrew Wiggins failed to earn great ratings and these are the best of the next generation of basketball!
Look, if a college athlete has a great year his freshmen year and can be drafted, he absolutely should enter the draft. But why shouldn’t this apply to high school seniors who are deemed NBA-ready by NBA front offices? After all, the NBA is not football and does not require the same physical development. I know Kobe, Dwight, LeBron, and Garnett are outliers and many high schoolers would be better served developing their games, but I feel players should have the freedom to make that choice for themselves. Kwame Brown was a “bust” of a #1 draft pick, but his life has turned out ok. He still got to play a game for a living (and made millions doing it)!
In the long run, abolishing the one-and-done rule would help the college game by getting more players in NCAA basketball who care about being there.
2) College Ball Glorifies the Coach over the Player
When Duke wins, Coach K gets all the credit. He’s a great coach, no doubt. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve praise, but in the NBA the players come first. They market players better than the most popular league in America, the NFL. The NCAA would be well-served to give players more exposure because the players are who the public wants to root for.
Typically, fans cheer for their alma mater and their bracket, and that’s it. March Madness is a lot of fun every year, but we need more story lines in college ball and part of that ties into point #1 (see above, players aren’t in college long enough to develop interesting stories). Most people this year are rooting against Kentucky, however, I find myself rooting for them because they are the ONLY story that is interesting in NCAA basketball right now (if you are a casual fan). As long as Kentucky is in the tournament, ratings will stay up.
And don’t act like casual fans aren’t important. If you don’t grab the interest of the casual fan, you will never be a top-tier sport (see baseball post McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds).
One last note here, last year was considered one of the deepest drafts in NBA history. However, this did not translate to viewership or interest in college basketball. People didn’t have much of a chance to fall in love with the games of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Joel Embid. (Again see point #1 on the one-and-done rule). Players like Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Shane Battier, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and countless others, including MJ himself, stayed in college ball because they wanted to be there and subsequently became legendary both in college and pro basketball. Undoubtedly a shift in mentality has occured over time amongst players, but in today’s college game the coaches are the only stars.
3) The Quality of Play in College Basketball is Terrible
The NBA will always have superior talent as it is comprised of the “best of the best”, but the college game feels clunkier and more difficult to watch than it has ever been. Part of this is that the most talented players are now freshmen thanks to the one-and-done rule (see point #1), but I think the bigger issue is that defensive-minded schemes rule college ball, rather than offensive-minded schemes as in the NBA.
Let’s face it, basketball is much less fun to watch when the first team to score 60 points wins. This is the state of at least 90% of NCAA ball. Hardly anybody in the college game can hit a consistent jumpshot. Many teams struggle to shoot 40% from the field. Not 3 point %… entire field goal %. It’s not pretty. As a fan, other than my alma mater, I have always cheered for UNC because they run an up-tempo, point guard-dependent style of basketball that is fun to watch. It is creative, fast, and improvised. Duke spreads the floor and is fun to watch. The Calipari-led Kentucky Wildcats are fast and freaky-athletic.
But for every 1 of these “must-see” teams I would argue there are 15 teams that play like Virginia did this year (shooting 40% or less from the field and relying on fouling and slowing down the game due to lack of talent). YUCK! Who wants to watch players trade bricks and shoot free-throws for 40 minutes?
Part of the problem is the rate of play in NCAA ball. A 35-second shot clock is far too long (NBA and international leagues use 24-second shot clocks). So yes, rules need to be changed to promote a faster-paced game. Another part of this is the laziness, in my opinion, of coaches. It is easier to develop defensive schemes and use checking and fouling strategies that slow down the rate of play, rather than develop players into competent, technically-sound basketball players. I think a big part of this is the coaches’ response to having their most-talented players for such a short period of time (see point #1), but I think job #1 of NCAA coaches should be to develop the talent of their players. Many times I feel this focus gets blurry with the pressure put on coaches to win basketball games.
And for those of you who argue that college ball has better defense than the NBA, I would ask what has become of Adam Morrison, Tyler Hansbrough, Jimmer Fredette, etc.? (players that dominated during their time in college and struggle to stay on NBA rosters because they can’t score against the world’s best).
Last thing and then I’ll finish. If you want to see beautiful basketball, watch the Warriors, Spurs, Hawks, Celtics, Cavaliers (at times), Rockets, Bulls, and Mavericks. This is the direction basketball is and should be headed.
I think college basketball can be great again, but a lot needs to change.
Thank you for reading and please share your opinion if you have one!