Matt Yglesias has a fairly silly article denouncing the NCAA as a “celebration of mediocrity.” Jason Zengerle takes issue with this, and provides a nice explanation of why college basketball is superior to the NBA on emotional grounds (and let me just note how happy I am to see our leading political magazines writing about something interesting for a change…). I prefer to take a different approach: in my opinion, what they play in the NBA is a bastardized and degenerate form of basketball, while the college game is closer to the true form of the game. I’ll expand on this below the fold.
The one incontestable point of Matt’s argument has to do with the talent level in college versus the professional game. There’s no denying that NBA players are better athletes than college basketball players. Not only does the NBA collect the best athletes from college and elsewhere, the players are also generally older, and have more physical development than the younger, often not quite mature players in college. I was a much better player at 23 than I was at 18, despite the fact that I played much more basketball when I was a teeneger than when I was in my early twenties– it was purely a matter of physical development.
He goes badly astray, though, when he tries to talk about the actual playing of the game:
Consequently, the college game bears only a faint resemblance to the real thing. The dominant big men who can transform a pro game are entirely absent. Strength, speed, quickness, and athleticism are radically diminished, and the quality of the defense is consequently laughable. Yet, despite the poor defense, virtually nobody in the college game has what it takes to penetrate into the lane and make a strong move to the hoop. So the rules need to be altered — a 35-second shot clock instead of the proper 24 and a short three-point line — to give the offense some hope. Consequently, players dribble in circles and pass, pass, pass around the horn endlessly, taking advantage of defenders who lack the quickness to snatch the ball. Eventually, someone will wind up open and fire off a shot — which more often than not they miss anyway. At the pro level, this is called “settling for jump shots” and it’s distinctly frowned upon. You take jumpers as a last resort, when you can’t make it into the paint, or else you do it as a threat — and you’d better nail them — forcing teams to defend you on the perimeter in order to open up the inside game.
Calling NBA basketball “the real thing” is a travesty– if anything, what he lays out here is an argument for the superiority of the college game. The aspects of the NBA game that Matt rates so highly are a perversion of real basketball. The college game is by no means perfect, but it comes closer to the ideal than the NBA.
The fundamental point that Matt misses is that basketball is a team game. The fact that not every play in a college game involves somebody dribbling into the lane and “mak[ing] a strong move to the hoop” is a feature, not a bug. The game of basketball is not supposed to be an individual showcase, five loosely connected games of one-on-one. It’s about a team, working together as a unit to defeat their opponents.
The rules differences Matt cites are things that the NBA introduced to make it more of a one-on-one game– the “proper” 24-second shot clock was introduced in 1954, sixty years after the game’s invention, and the three-point line didn’t come about until the late 1970′s. The shot clock and three-point line only trickled down to the college game in the mid-80′s (granted, this is Matt’s whole lifetime, but some of us remember the game before the shot clock and three-point line). In addition to those, there are also the defensive rules, which heavily restrict the ability of defensive players to help their teammates. The cumulative effect of these rules is to make the NBA game a loosely connected set of one-on-one games– there isn’t much time to pass the ball around and find an open shot, so whoever gets the ball pretty much has to do their own thing. Which means endless drives to the basket, or big centers backing guys down under the basket. Neither of those is real basketball.
If you want to see real basketball played well, look up some old Princeton games– the clinic they put on against Georgetown in 1989, for example, or their tournament win over UCLA in the mid-90′s. When you get five guys passing and cutting and moving without the ball, it’s a thing of beauty, and more often than not, ends up with somebody getting a good close-in shot. Or check out the great Duke teams of the Laettner/Hurley era, or Roy Williams’s best Kansas teams– even last year’s UNC team was a pleasure to watch (aside from Rashad McCants, who was a gunner), and Illinois last year was suprisingly good for a Big Ten team. Georgetown this year runs a pretty good Princeton set every now and again, and when they’re on, it’s devastating (you may be able to see it at 9:40 tomorrow night…). Much as I despise the Hoyas, and I hated Big John Thompson, his son has that team playing some awfully nice basketball.
Yeah, if you bend the rules in stupid directions, you can turn basketball into a pure test of individual athletic skill. That’s not what it’s supposed to be, though– it takes a short shot clock and tightly restricted defenses to make it so, and even then, teams that find a way to play as a unit will beat superior talent. Jordan’s 70-win teams with the Bulls were great not just because he was a better athlete than anyone else, but because they actually had a systematic approach to the game that made the whole greater than the sum of Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, and Scottie Pippen.
Take away the silly rules changes, and the game becomes more mental. You can put together a pick-up game– no shot clock, no three-pointers– between the five best athletes in the gym, trying to play like NBA stars, and five less talented guys who know how to play the game, and the chumps will win more often than you might think. And what they do to win will be way more interesting to watch than a collection of showboating dunks and one-on-one moves.
Provided, of course, that you actually know something about basketball.