No, College Basketball is Not Better Than the NBA

After very much enjoying this year’s National Championship game in which Louisville defeated Michigan, I figured out exactly why: it looked like an NBA playoff game.

This goes to an argument that drives me absolutely crazy: no, college basketball is not better than professional. People who say this may enjoy college basketball more, but they typically base their reasoning on highly fallacious talking points. Allow me to debunk some myths.

Myth: College basketball has better basketball

This is the most demonstrably stupid thing anyone can ever say about anything ever. Besides the fact that the college game just has some truly terrible rules that really need fixing (no review on controversial out-of-bounds calls in the last two minutes; the offensive team can call a time-out after they’ve scored and no longer have possession), the college game is so amateurish when stacked beside the NBA that I almost don’t know where to begin.

All the best players in the college game are gone after a year. The rest are slower, less athletic, and frequently poor shooters. When teams foul to extend the clock, you can be virtually certain that four out of the five players on the floor will not be able to make two free throws in a row. Half the guys on the court cannot create their own shot. At the end of games, teams will frequently look like they've never practiced an out-of-bounds play, let alone a pick and roll or a fade screen. Chicken, meet your head, recently cut off.

The heightened tension of the single elimination tournament certainly adds great flare to college basketball, but to say that it’s better than the professional level is like saying seventh grade girls basketball is preferable to Louisville-Michigan because “they’re not just scoring all the time.” If you want to watch an inferior version of the sport, I guess that’s your druthers, but don’t think that makes T-ball better than the World Series.

Myth: No one plays defense in the NBA

While it’s true that over the course of an 82 game season plenty of teams take nights off and those teams not in playoff contention frequently don’t bother to defend their basket with “Game of Thrones”-level tenacity, the same could be said for plenty of college basketball. In the NBA, the whole league is lumped together, while in college we only pay attention to the elite teams. If you had to spend all your time watching Missouri State vs. Illinois Polytechnic Institute, you wouldn't argue that these teams are airtight defensive unit. Or you might not: frequently people mistake the fact that Illinois Polytechnic Institute has no one on their team who can score for Missouri State playing tough defense. The two are not the same thing.

If you want to watch consistent incredible displays of defensive basketball, you watch the elite professional teams and the NBA playoffs. Chicago Bulls fans, of all people, should be infuriated by the accusation that any team on the college level is in the same ballpark as what Tom Thibodeau gets out of his team (read this Grantland piece on how effectively the Bulls guard the pick and roll).

Beyond that, the NBA has the greatest athletes in the world: the fastest, strongest, tallest human beings in sports. At some point there is no stopping a Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. No defense has yet been concocted to deal with such freaks of nature, which has translated to people having the totally incorrect perception that somehow the other teams aren’t trying to guard James or Melo or Durant because “they’re lazy and make a lot of money.”

Myth: college players have more heart

This one makes steam come out of my ears. First of all, “heart” is not a metric. It’s the amorphous rhetorical retreat of people who can’t defend an argument. The assumption that professional athletes play for money and college athletes do not is totally erroneous. Any elite college basketball player is far more of a mercenary than a professional. The pro has made his dime and has nothing to play for but glory; the college athlete has more incentive to play selfishly to improve his draft stock (or did no one else notice the college career of Austin Rivers?). The players most invested in their college careers are the walk-ons and general bench-dwelling white guys who never get in the game and will all go on to be dentists. They may have this so-called “heart” because they’re not trying to advance to the next level.

Furthermore, the college basketball game has been so denuded by one-and-done athletes and the mercenary, super-celebrity coaches, that each year becomes a contest of who can milk the eventual NBA superstar’s one or two amateur years the most effectively. Big-time college basketball is, let’s face it, a massive labor violation and an exploitative farm league for the pros. The team that cuts the nets down at the end of March Madness has no more or less “heart” than Florida Gulf Coast or Wisconsin or LaSalle or anyone else. A tournament is an algorithm. By definition it produces a winner, and that winner is not the one who “leaves it all on the court” or any other cliché. It’s usually because they make their free throws.

My suggestion for college basketball fans (and don’t get me wrong, I count myself as one) is to actually sit down this spring and watch the NBA playoffs. Watch LeBron play lockdown defense, watch Kevin Durant’s fourth quarter heroics, watch the San Antonio Spurs run a ball movement clinic, and then ask yourself if you’ve seen a whole lot of college teams doing anything even remotely on the same level.