Back to School

It was Saturday in Bloomington, Indiana. A Hoosiers player chased down a black-and-gold clad opponent who was in possession. The 7-foot tall chasing Hoosier dove, forgetting his body, and used an outstretched finger to tap the ball away. That lunging, athletic play stopped a 3-on-1 for the black-and-gold Iowa and flipped the play from an effortless layup for the Hawkeyes to an easy transition bucket for the Indiana Hoosiers.   

The man who scored the bucket was incidentally the same man who tipped the ball away from the Iowa man and crashed to the hardwood only seconds before. Cody Zeller, Indiana’s bigman, leads his team not only in statistical categories – which he does most nights in points, rebounds and blocks – but in hustle.  Zeller puts forth everything he has on the court every single night.

Zeller was unfazed when he cut his chin during the second half. He attempted to conceal what was happening to the officials, but bled on his shorts and had to be escorted from the game. Zeller stayed out for an eternity…27 seconds. He immediately returned to the court and drew another foul, made two free throws, then converted on a dunk all while lauding his teammates with praise for giving Indiana the victory.

Efforts like Cody Zeller’s are just one of the reasons that the hippodrome of college basketball is so revered, so pure and so beloved in today’s society. Pride, upsets, equality?

One of the reasons that players make efforts like Zeller’s is that they are playing for pride; they are playing for their school. When they stop across the white line, they respect that they are representing the other students (that they very well may have class with the next day) that are sitting in the bleachers or on the couch at home. That effort channels itself through every game and creates a better product for the NCAA than even the NBA can produce. Where is that leaping effort in the NBA? The only time recently that an NBA player would hit the floor by their own accord would be Chris Bosh on his incredibly delayed reaction to a supposed Carlos Boozer elbow (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-I95QvTlsDs flip to 2:43 for your viewing pleasure). Bosh missed the Oscars last week where he should have won at least some sort of acting award – and if not an acting award, maybe “Best makeup” then for his fantastic ostrich impersonation.

Another part of that allure to NCAA basketball is the campus feel and the stadium atmosphere.  Also helping is probably the fact that the NBA runs a higher average ticket cost than the NCAA.  The college atmosphere is great – the student body appears to be as one when a rival arrives. Face paint, chants and the obscure, but awesome, happenings on a regular campus. The greatest pranks have been pulled there: CollegeHumor faking out colleague Amir on a blind-folded $500,000 shot at Maryland in 2009, and the Harlem Shake/Gangnam Style flash-mob that exploded in the bleachers of the Terrapins home stadium just last week. Other than Reggie Miller and Spike Lee’s jawing during the 1994 Playoffs, there is not the same level of intensity from the crowd at NBA games, because there’s no reason to. There’s a certain level of detachment at NBA games whereas it is the exact converse at college games.

Speaking of detachment, it’s rare in college basketball. Players are committed to their teams – unless they play with John Calipari at Kentucky with the “One and Done” philosophy where they merely fulfill their obligation to play. There is no ‘teaming up’ or Super teams at the collegiate level. There’s also an absence of immaturity, at this younger level. It’s a healthier environment where the coaches coach and the players play. As odd as it sounds – college players are more mature than those in the NBA. When’s the last time an NBA player forced out a coach, committed to a team, then asked for a trade – all in the span of three months (we’re looking at you, Dwight Howard). What about the ugly affair that eventually separated the pairing of Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets? No college player controls a front office (because there isn’t one) or gets upset with his coach (the coach gets upset with them) and decides that he’s a superstar so he’ll do whatever he damn well pleases – which is refreshing. The college man understands the concept of loyalty.

Compare this to Marcus Camby punching Jeff van Gundy, Ron Artest’s “Malice in the Palace” and any Dennis Rodman look from his playing days. The NBA does not even try until April, when the playoffs arrive. The NBA regular season is useless, as I’m sure you’re all aware. Teams advanced in age like the Boston Celtics can cruise through the regular season and then flick the switch ‘on’ for the playoffs. With the exception of the 2010-11 season where the Mavericks upset the favored Miami Heat, most NBA playoffs go according to schedule and the higher seed triumphs en route to the Conference Finals – from there it’s the team riding the hotter hand who makes the Finals. But in college, nothing is given and anyone is eligible at any time. Lehigh and Norfolk State had never been heard of until both #15 seeds pulled off court-storming wins against #2 seeds Duke and Mizzou, respectively last spring. Even then, #16 UNC-Asheville nearly beat #1 Syracuse in what would have been the first 16-seed beating a 1-seed in the history of the tournament just a year ago. Unpredictability holds NCAA teams accountable to bring all their effort every night and the upsets provide fans reasons to come out and reasons to love the parity, and the sport, of college basketball.  

The sport of college basketball is also closer to what Dr. James Naismith dreamed up in Springfield, Massachusetts so many years previous in 1891. It’s a tough game about free throws, layups, and great defense. College basketball emphasizes the fundamentals and winning whereas the NBA is more focused on its superstars, flashy dunks, and marketability. The NBA has even added rules to increase scoring and therefore, in their opinion, enjoyment to the viewers experience. What if someone wanted to watch a good, hard defensive matchup between two good basketball teams? He’d have to look elsewhere than at The Association. Some of the rules detract from the game.  Take the Defensive Three-Second rule. That rule states that defenders can’t hang out in the lane like most teams strategize to from first-grade rec ball to college. Teams place their biggest kid in the lane to stop any drives to the hoop for an easy layup, but the NBA purports flashy dunks…so it’s out with the defense and time to make the path a little clearer for today’s NBA superstars.  Another is The Continuation Rule, which says if a player is fouled, he has two steps to “complete the play” – which is basketball for get to the free-throw line so the TV commentators can discuss you and your new shoes/movie/clothing line more. The last, and worst, rule by the NBA is the sixth foul rule which ups the foul limit from five (which is used in every other form of basketball) to six. That rule change was enacted so that NBA fans could watch the stars play longer and that they would have more chances to forget real defense and rise up for a block on occasion. But the rule is pointless. Giving NBA stars an extra foul is meaningless because they already have an extra teammate in black-and-white stripes.  LeBron James, the NBAs premier player, went 254 straight minutes without a foul being called. That’s 27 quarters and nearly 7 games on personal foul free ball. Any player, whether it was James or Brian Scalabrine, could not go 254 minutes without committing any foul! At least…without some help. The biased in the NBA towards its superstars makes me angrier than Allen Iverson after being asked about practice, and it should make you too.

The worst is when rules aren’t enforced. Like Dwyane Wade’s travel in a game against the Mavericks in 2011 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDnCEQ9WJtc). Oh wait, it wasn’t just any game…it was the NBA Finals! How does an NBA player with multiple referees watching get away with three steps like that? Only David Stern knows.

Now it’s not being said that college basketball is perfect as a whole – what with recruiting violations and such – but between the white lines, it’s the best form of basketball that a fan can hope for.

College sports are beloved because it is the sport it in its purest form. College removes the politicking between the paid and bank roll – it removes the things that detract from the game and it brings the competition back to why fans originally loved it. And why should the fans of the NBA keep going there for their hoops fix? They shouldn’t. Colleges host more affordable games, rules closer to the original sport, loyalty, pride and the atmosphere – so they should host more support, too.

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