by Julian Spivey
Around this time every year there seems to be a raging debate, especially on social media sites like Twitter, over which form of basketball is greater – college basketball or NBA. Because this is the time of the year for the NCAA Men’s College Basketball tournament or March Madness, which this year’s installment truly has been, people often lean on the side of college ball being the best.
I’m not sure anybody really needs to choose up sides here – both forms of the game are exciting, interesting and well-worth our time as sports fans – but I will put my two cents in for the NBA being better. The NBA features the very best basketball players in the world making a lot of money because they are the best. College basketball, even in the NCAA Tournament, simply isn’t the best players performing – in fact, a small percentage of players in the tournament will ever make the professional ranks. The player favored as the number one draft pick in this summer’s upcoming NBA Draft – LSU’s Ben Simmons – didn’t make the tournament.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that March Madness or the NCAA Tournament as a singular sporting event isn’t more exciting than anything the NBA can offer, including the NBA Finals, but it is a good example of why the game of college basketball isn’t exactly better than the NBA.
The common quote seen or heard around this time of the year is that college basketball players seem to have more hustle, heart or simply try harder. This isn’t really the case – it’s just that the pros in the NBA are so damn good at what they do their games often come off as effortless. Just look at how easy Golden State Warriors superstar and reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry makes the game look. Are you going to tell me he isn’t giving his all? If he looks like he isn’t it’s because he’s that good at giving his all.
March Madness gives us the highlights we crave as sports fans, particularly in a social media world where we can all marvel at moments in GIFs and Vines. It gives us nail-biters, overtime thrillers and buzzer beaters (there have been multiple of these and some close-calls that were overturned on review too). The tournament also gives us Cinderella stories, though I’d argue no true Cinderella made it to the Sweet Sixteen this year, which gives the great narrative of the underdog defeating the Goliaths of the sport. The storylines are terrific, but at times they cover up some truly horrifically sloppy play, a ton of missed free throws and frequent sleeping on defense. Sure, there is the occasional sloppiness on the professional ranks, as well, but you don’t see it as often because the better teams, the ones televised, don’t have these moments occur often.
Another thing that’s often missed in the high of March Madness’ opening weekend is most of the moments we truly love about the tournament come-and-go in its first four days. There was so much excitement over the last days that we’ve possibly fooled ourselves into forgetting that frequently the last two weekends of the tournament don’t have a quarter of the excitement as the first two – with Cinderellas mostly falling to the wayside and the usual suspects stepping forward (just look at the brackets they’ve already stepped forward: North Carolina, Kansas, Duke, Syracuse, Gonzaga, Villanova).
The best example of why college basketball isn’t a better game than the NBA, but March Madness might be more exciting than anything the NBA can offer, is the difference in 48 hours of Northern Iowa player Paul Jesperson. Jesperson hit the biggest shot of the tournament in the first round when his heave from beyond half court at the buzzer sent his No. 11 Panthers past the No. 5 Texas Longhorns. It’s a shot that made me jump to my feet and shout with glee, “He made it! He made it!” like I was a child. But, Jesperson would go from hero and best shot of the tourney to goat and taking the absolute worst shot of the tourney in just 48 hours. On Sunday night, his Panthers should’ve beaten an even better team from Texas – No. 3 Texas A&M, but collapsed in the final minute and the Aggies sent the game into overtime. The Panthers arguably still should’ve won the ballgame as they had the ball with six seconds remaining in a tie game. Jesperson had the ball and could’ve easily made it all the to the hoop or gotten a better, closer look in that time, but inexplicably with four seconds on the clock he heaved another shot from beyond half court that missed badly. I blame it on him being temporarily lobotomized and forgetting how much time was on the clock, but it’s completely possible that his heroics from two nights before had gone to his head and he felt as if he was the white, taller version of Steph Curry and could make anything at that point. His team lost in the second overtime. It was one of the most colossally worst decisions I’ve ever seen on a basketball court – and something I’ve never seen before in the professional ranks, and doubt I ever will. It perfectly encapsulated college basketball. It’s wild, it’s unpredictable and that makes it at times exciting and at times infuriating to watch and these moments can happen in the span of just a few seconds. What it doesn’t make college basketball is a better game than the NBA.