I haven’t met a single person who loves college basketball more than I do. There are so many things about the sport that drive people crazy, but I honestly love every last wart that college basketball has. I love that 18-year-old players care about their “brands,” wear a million accessories on their arms, legs, and/or heads when they’re on the court, and immediately transfer when they don’t get enough playing time. I love that Virginia and Wisconsin can win games by scoring 48 points, and I love that a full-court press can make a previously great offense suddenly throw the ball all over the gym and cause players to run around like their dicks are on fire. I love that people in the media lose their minds when college students spill onto the court to celebrate a win. I love that college basketball refs have no idea what the hell they’re doing. (OK, maybe not that one so much.) I love watching coaches try to figure out how to win with a shooting guard who can’t shoot, a big man who is scared of contact and can’t dribble or catch for shit, and a freshman point guard who is so far inside his own head that he looks like he got a lobotomy. College basketball is so perfect to me that I’d feel comfortable classifying it as “extremely my shit.”
So I’m coming from a place of love when I say this: We, as a college basketball community, have to stop our war against the NBA and its fans. I know that liking something in today’s world comes with an obligation to rip on people who like something different. But even so, the college-versus-NBA divide makes no sense. This isn’t a political issue, even if college fans tend to skew rural and conservative while NBA fans tend to skew urban and liberal. It’s not like there’s a finite amount of basketball to go around and we need to argue with each other to figure out how it should be distributed. Fans of both sides treat the other like they’re fighting with North Korea, when the relationship between college and the NBA should really be more like the one between the United States and Canada. So please, college basketball fans, put your weapons/Twitter accounts down and stop engaging in these pointless arguments. Because here’s the truth: The NBA might be the greatest goddamn thing in the world.
No, seriously. A new season starts Tuesday night and I, a die-hard college basketball fan, couldn’t be more excited. I don’t expect every college fan to share these sentiments, and that’s OK. You don’t have to like the NBA. There are plenty of valid reasons to prefer the college game, including the chaos and unpredictability, the decades of history that affect today’s story lines and rivalries, and the passion from players and fans. Nobody is telling you what to like. Nobody is going to Clockwork Orange you into watching NBA games. But if you are one of the fans who prefers to watch only college basketball, please, for the love of God, stop saying the NBA isn’t good basketball. You are demonstrably wrong and making the rest of us look like idiots.
That’s really the source of my frustration: The absurd notion that the NBA offers up bad basketball because “they don’t play defense” or “it’s all just a bunch of one-on-one.” I mean, if the NBA has one undeniable advantage over college, it’s the quality of the basketball. Every game features the best athletes in the world defying physics with their bodies and/or the ball. The level of athleticism, skill, and knowledge it takes just to fart on the end of an NBA bench is mind-blowing, which becomes evident every time a college All-American flames out shortly after entering the league. If all you care about is the quality of basketball, you should be 100 percent in on the NBA, to the point that you’d watch the Sixers play the Nets over a Duke-Kentucky national championship.
Besides, those two arguments are complete bullshit. There is certainly defense played in the NBA, and it’s played at a much higher level than even the best college defense. It’s just that NBA players are really, really, REALLY good at offense. If you watch enough college basketball, you could get tricked into thinking that guys miss open shots because of good defense, when the truth is they miss open shots because they suck at shooting. NBA players (typically) don’t miss open shots. In fact, they rarely miss semi-challenged shots. And they’ve gotten so good at handling the ball that pressing in the NBA is basically extinct because it’s a waste of a defender’s energy. Sure, there are exceptions (obligatory James Harden mention), but if it looks like NBA players aren’t trying on defense, it’s usually because the players they’re guarding are just that damn good.
That brings me to the second bit of bullshit that college fans like to spew when criticizing the NBA, which is that there is a lot of one-on-one. Of course there is! That’s the whole point of basketball offense! Every college coach in America wants to create one-on-one situations, too. Offenses going up against man-to-man defenses at every level of basketball are designed to do the same thing: get the ball to a certain spot on the floor and/or in a certain player’s hands so that player can then beat his man and score. That’s it. There are obviously a ton of different philosophies regarding the best way to do this, but every coach wants to accomplish the same goal. So when NBA guys bring the ball up the floor and shoot without making a single pass, they aren’t necessarily thinking “screw my teammates and the ideals of basketball that Middle America holds sacred.” More often than not, they’re thinking, “I’m one of the best players in the world and this bum can’t guard me. If we worked the offense for another 20 seconds, this would be the matchup we’d want anyway, so I might as well shoot it now since there’s no guarantee I can get back to this spot on this possession.”
Again, there are exceptions and plenty of NBA players do jack up terrible shots (obligatory J.R. Smith mention). But it’s not like NBA coaches encourage this. It’s not like Gregg Popovich calls timeout just to say, “Meh, you guys can figure it out. Just pass it once or twice and then throw up some garbage or something.” NBA offenses and college offenses are both designed to exploit the most favorable one-on-one matchups they can. It’s just that NBA teams can get to that point much faster because their players are talented as hell, while college teams work the ball and run more offense because the players aren’t good enough to overwhelm their defenders in pure isolation situations. (Unlike most college players, NBA players are also great at shooting off the dribble, which plays a big part in making isolation possessions justifiable.) I guarantee if you put Carmelo Anthony on any college team in America (including Virginia), the coach of that team would be totally fine with Melo catching a post-entry pass off the block, turning and facing, and going one-on-one every single time down the floor. So stop with this nonsense that college is a purer or more intellectual game just because there are more passes per possession than in the NBA.
Last season, for my money, was the most entertaining NBA season ever. So with college basketball season more than two weeks away, don’t be afraid to give the NBA a real chance, college fans. If you still don’t like it, fine. I get it. I will always prefer college basketball, so I totally understand why the NBA might not be your thing. Either way, let this fight go. If nothing else, stop making other college fans look dumb. If you must engage in the arguing, just stick to the passion-and-tradition shit and leave the actual basketball part out of it. College basketball is amazing for many reasons, but it’s not something people can get into out of the blue. You really have to be brainwashed through circumstance (where you were born, how you were raised, what college you went to, etc.) to become a die-hard college fan, which is why trying to convert people against their will is never going to work. So let it go when the NBA fans make fun of college basketball. They’re just looking for a way to release the frustration that comes with knowing which teams are going to be in the Finals before the season even begins.
If we’re being completely honest, the only college-versus-NBA argument worth having is: Could Kentucky beat the Sixers? And we’re sooooo close to reaching a consensus, you guys, so let’s keep chipping away until we solve it.