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Reader Response: Why the NBA Is Better Than College Basketball

By Walter Sun


While I respect the opinions voiced by Mr. Chase in his Jan 21 column entitled “Why the NCAA is Better than the NBA,” I would like to provide a counterpoint to his arguments, arguing against several of the six points that he made.

First, the NBA provides one of the most fair and level playing grounds of any college or professional sports (the NFL may have a better system for player movement, but their 16-game season prevents them from creating an unbiased schedule). They have a salary cap and a collective bargaining agreement in place which maintains moderate league parity and controls player movement. The aspect of fairness comes in when one examines the 82 game schedule.

For example, each Western Conference team plays every other team in the conference four times, and every Eastern Conference team twice (the even number of games further allows you to play each opponent the same number of times at home as on the road). So, when the playoffs come around, tiebreakers will involve a comparison of apples to apples. So, to compare NCAA basketball with the NBA point-by-point, I comment below on the six reasons that Mr. Chase cited as positives for NCAA basketball.

1. Egos

Just because college players are not paid (at least not legally) does not make them more humble. If you asked Division I starters how many of them think they’d make it in the NBA, a disproportionate number would say yes. To illustrate, 34 players declared early entry in the NBA draft (a few withdrew before draft day after obtaining advice from NBA insiders regarding their prospects), and only 11 were taken. Of course, these college players are said to have “ambition” instead of “ego,” but their take on how they should be treated vis-a-vis the rest of the team and the league is the same.

2. Playing Style

I agree with Mr. Chase that the playing style in college basketball is more team-oriented. However, just because it is a team game doesn’t make the sport more fun to watch. Otherwise, you could argue that the most exciting basketball is seen by watching a group of high school seniors who have practiced and played together throughout their entire secondary school education. They exhibit the best teamwork and might not have a single superstar. The most exciting basketball is played by the best players, which are primarily in the NBA. With the legalization of zone defenses in the NBA, more team efforts will overcome individual efforts. However, these games are still exciting because you are watching the best players work together. So, my point is that people like to watch NBA-caliber players play, regardless of style.

3. College Fans

Fair enough, no argument here. College students generally show much more fanaticism than the average businessman fan at a pro game.

4. Parity

With the advent of rampant free agency in all pro sports, as well as college players leaving early for professional drafts, it seems that the word “parity” became the catch-phrase of the 90s. No longer was it exciting to have teams like the Celtics and Lakers dominate pro basketball, or the likes of UCLA and Kentucky dominating the ranks of college ball. I think that TV execs came up with that idea and pushed it forward in order to convince viewers that match-ups that weren’t compelling actually were because “in any given day, anyone can win.” Consider this: in the semifinals of any contest, would you rather watch the top teams play each other, or mismatches due to earlier round upsets?

Since the NCAA tournament increased the field in 1979 (from 32 teams to 48; the tournament was later increased to 64, then 65), a #1 seed has won the tournament 14 of 25 times (56 percent); so, almost half the time, one of the top four teams in the country did not win the title. For college football fans, imagine how ludicrous it would be this past year, if instead of deciding who of OU, USC, and LSU should be number 1, there was a 50 percent chance that none of them would be the national champ this year? Contrast this to the NBA, where since the field increased to 16 teams (from 12, in 1984), a division champion (one of the top four NBA teams) has won 18 out of 20 times (90%).

Even so, it’s still rarely clear who will win the NBA title each year. I disagree that “you usually know which [team will win] by the first round of the playoffs.” Last year, very few voters thought San Antonio would win it all after the first round (the second round match-up with the Lakers, as well as their shaky first round against Phoenix, contributed to this). The San Antonio/Los Angeles, Dallas/Sacramento, Dallas/San Antonio, and San Antonio/New Jersey series were all pretty good ones to watch, in the final three rounds.

On the flipside, which great Final Four matchups do you remember? The last great one I can think of was Duke/UConn in 1999. Everyone wanted to see Kentucky/Arizona last year, but that never happened. In 2000, the Final Four had #1 seed Michigan St, and a five and two eight seeds, which looked like a pre-season Spartan invitational. In that year, the only match-ups of top 10 teams occurred in the Midwest Final when MSU defeated Iowa State (effectively the national title game). Sure, it might be fun during the moment to see Marquette shock Kentucky and Kansas beat Arizona, but you come to realize the consequences the next day, which is that Final Four weekend will once again be a let-down.

5. Permanence

Mr. Chase writes, “There is a much better chance the team you root for will be around for as long as you are, and there is no chance of the team being sold or moving cities.” Since 1985, when the Kansas City Kings moved to Sacramento, only two teams have moved in the NBA (Vancouver to Memphis, and Charlotte to New Orleans). So, most NBA teams stay in the same place, and most superstars stay with their team. When you think of Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant, you think of Boston, San Antonio, Minnesota, and the Lakers, respectively.

Even players who have moved earlier on in their career have general associations with their current team (Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Kidd, Chris Webber). In the NCAA, players jump for the NBA so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with the stars of each team (I acknowledge that this is as much a fault of the NBA as it is college, but that’s the current state of things). Sure, Syracuse will be Syracuse, but in 2003, they are no longer Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse Orangemen. Permanence of a school or franchise is meaningless if there is no association with the individuals on the team.

6. Playoffs

The NBA playoff system provides a good mix of fairness with excitement. A team does not lose the fruits of an 82-game season by having a single bad day in the spring. Teams that advance in the playoffs have to show consistency and excellence. This does not take away from the excitement or competitiveness of series (the Detroit/Orlando first round series was exciting even though #8 seeded Orlando lost a 3-1 series lead). If you reduced the NCAA tournament to 16 teams and had four best-of-three weekends (if you want to keep the excitement of the tournament, you certainly could grant the top eight teams byes into the final tourney, and have the other 8 spots up for grabs), you would have some high caliber college basketball and excitement similar to what you have now. With regard to fairness, the seeding process has no subjectivity.

In college basketball (as well as football and baseball), individual opinions determine the placement of teams in the post-season competition. In the NBA, your winning percentage determines where you are placed, which is the ultimate level of fairness given that the schedule is balanced between your team and all other teams in your conference. Granted, the only aspect of unfairness is deciding who gets home field advantage in the NBA Finals, since teams from each conference play different schedules. For example, the Pacers may have home field throughout this year, but this is a minor thing compared to major league baseball, which has intra-divisional unbalanced schedules, and the NFL, where 14 of your 16 games are concentrated in three of the eight divisions, making wild card comparisons highly inequitable.

Long story short, of all major college and professional sports in America, the NBA does the best job of balancing competitive fairness with fan excitement. Evidence of this fact can be seen by the growth in fan interest the past decade (compared with sports like MLB, which have seen fan attrition).