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Why We Love College Basketball

But should we care more about the NBA?

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Practice Day Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

John Beilein isn’t really going to go to the Detroit Pistons, is he?

For over a decade, Beilein has been my favorite coach in college basketball. When I was still in high school, I fell in love with that Kevin Pittsnogle West Virginia team that made it to the Elite Eight, and I’ve been hooked on Beilein ball ever since.

My friends at Purdue said it was indecent how much I liked the coach of an opposing team, but I didn’t care and still don’t. By all accounts, John Beilein is not only a tremendous coach, but a tremendous person as well.

In short, he’s what college basketball is all about, Charlie Brown.

But that’s what we thought about Brad Stevens, too, once upon a time. And he left for the Celtics.

When Brad Stevens took that job, I was shocked. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. For a guy who loves data and X’s and O’s, the NBA is a dream. For a guy who doesn’t want to recruit dirty, the NBA offers a level playing field. Unlike football, college basketball follows trends in the pro game rather than setting them.

So it makes sense that Beilein might leave. Obviously Brad Stevens made the right call.

Which raises the question: if Brad Stevens and John Beilein depart for the NBA, does that mean it might be better than college basketball?

When I was growing up, the bad-boy Pistons were winning NBA championships with ugly basketball. Latrell Sprewell was choking his coach. The Pacers were getting into fights with fans. It was easy to avoid the NBA and feel like I wasn’t missing anything. To feel like the college game was self-evidently superior.

But the NBA has gotten better, and while I’m not sure college has gotten worse, its dirty laundry is out in the open for everyone to see. The FBI investigation. Serious discussions about paying players. A transfer market that looks more and more like mercenary free agency.

It’s entirely possible that college basketball is the dirtiest major sport in America. Boxing and horse racing are probably worse, but boxing and horse racing aren’t particularly popular anymore, either. Those two facts are probably related to each other.

So is it time to jump off this college basketball bandwagon and start spending my Wednesday nights in February watching the Pacers instead of Purdue?

Yeah, that’s not going to happen. But why not? Inertia and habit aren’t good enough answers (but please forget that I made that argument when it comes time to write the article about why college basketball moving to four quarters is a dumb idea).

Things College Basketball Has Got (That the NBA Doesn’t)

Personal Attachment

I went to Purdue. I sat in class next to basketball players. I went to the same parties they did. That’s my alma mater, man. And it’s not just that I want my school to do well and beat IU. Those guys on the floor represent me in a way that professional athletes don’t. A lot of times people who aren’t into sports say that they don’t want to have their day ruined because a bunch of millionaires in one set of laundry beat another set of millionaires in a different set of laundry. I know the days of the basketball team being made up of ordinary students are long gone, and we may even someday get to a point where some of the players are millionaires while they’re still in college (though I hope not), but those guys walk past the same buildings as me every day. They had to deal with the same freak snowstorm that shut down campus. And they probably had to sit through a bullshit COMM 114 class at some point.

Meaningful, Memorable Upsets

The two most magical events in sports are the Olympics and the NCAA Tournament. Why? Because you can have the classic underdog story where someone comes out of nowhere. The Miracle on Ice. UMBC over Virginia. Loyola’s run to the Final Four.

To have a David-and-Goliath story, you need Davids and Goliaths. The NBA doesn’t have that. Sure, some of the thirty teams are bad in a given year, and sure the Lakers and the Celtics have a more storied history than most, but at a fundamental level all thirty teams are on the same playing field. Hardly anybody remembers any great NBA upsets. People still talk about Chaminade beating Ralph Sampson.

The Celtics and the Nets play in different cities. Duke and Mercer play in different universes. In fact, the only reason I know that Mercer exists is because they beat Duke a few years ago.

Depth of Available Knowledge

I have a friend who, if asked to name all players from all thirty NBA rosters, could probably get 98% of them. Anything that’s worth getting into is worth really getting into. With the success of the MCU and Game of Thrones, America has embraced nerd culture. And what do nerds want? More of the thing they like! (For the most part. We can debate the canonicity of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the comments.)

There are 351 Division-I teams. I have a lot of friends who are huge college basketball fans, and I’m not sure any of them could name 50% of the schools, to say nothing of their players, coaches, conferences, locations, nicknames, arenas, famous alumni and weird traditions. The rabbit hole goes as deep as you want to go, and with the internet, it’s now possible for me to learn something about the Mercer Bears or the Stetson Hatters or the Campbell Camels. I can look up their profile on KenPom. I can read their message boards. And assuming I’m willing to pay $5 a month for the ESPN-Plus streaming service, I can even watch a decent number of their games.

Student Sections

Rowdy students, bands, clever cheers. When you watch a college basketball game, you get authentic gym noise. The NBA pipes in music during gameplay! It’s sad, really. Student sections bring an energy and an authenticity that professional teams can’t match.

Geography & Charm

Exterior shots of NBA games all look the same — a giant corporate arena surrounded by parking lots downtown in a major city. I know what Memphis is, and from a blimp shot, it looks the same as every other city.

Exterior shots of college games show libraries in the snow, quaint college towns. The arenas are more idiosyncratic. Watching on TV, you feel like you’ve been transported somewhere different, somewhere you may have never been before.

Bill Raftery

The NBA does not have Bill Raftery. Bill Raftery is the best. “Onions!”