NBA vs. NCAA: The Debate

ncaa nba

Basketball is the best sport. This is an indisputable fact that all reasonable people can agree on. But which is better, NBA basketball or NCAA basketball? Let’s look at some of the factors that make the NBA and college hoops unique from one another.

NCAA March Madness vs NBA Playoffs

Quality vs. Quantity

The most obvious difference is the quality of play. In addition to the cream of the crop from college basketball, the NBA features the best international players. NBA players are either in their prime or their career or close to it, while college players aren’t close. Exacerbating this discrepancy is the fact that the most talented college players almost always leave after one year in school – gone are the days when a player like Patrick Ewing would stay in school and dominate college basketball for four years. There are about 4200 Division I basketball players versus about 360 NBA players. Clearly, the NBA is a better option if you’re strictly looking for great players and great basketball.

Quality of play and is far from the only thing that impacts how we enjoy the sport. There are a surprising amount of rule differences between the NBA and the college game. Most of the rule differences make the NBA a more exciting product. In the NBA, the shot clock is 24 seconds and the game lasts 48 minutes. This creates more possessions and a faster pace than in college, where the shot clock is 30 seconds and the game is 40 minutes. NBA teams can advance the ball well past half court after calling time out. This is critical in the last few seconds of a close game – instead of taking highly improbable half court heaves, NBA teams advance the ball and create better opportunities for buzzer beaters. Their counterparts in college are forced to inbound the ball from under their own basket. The college rule is more “pure”, but the NBA rule is more exciting.

Rules, Rules, Rules

A few other rule difference deserve acknowledgement. Six personal fouls get you tossed from an NBA game, compared to five in college. While the 8 extra minutes of game time and shorter shot clock in the NBA make the numbers virtually proportional (one foul per 8 minutes), it is still easier to get in ‘foul trouble’ in college. Put it this way: if basketball games were 8 minutes total and one foul got you ejected, everyone would be in foul trouble for the entire game. The game is best when the best players are playing, so the NBA gets the nod on this rule too. The rule difference that favors college most is the 1 and 1. It creates and exciting scenario where a team is punished heavily for missing the first free throw. In the NBA, teams get two shots when they are in the penalty and don’t risk losing the possession over one miss.


While the rules and quality of play favor the NBA game, college basketball often has a better atmosphere. This is partially due to rivalries. With all of the player movement in the NBA, true rivalries are hard to come by and Lakers Celtics is the only true old school rivalry. But no matter who is on the court, you know that Carolina – Duke is going to be a bloodbath. Even in non rivalry games, college basketball crowds are usually more fired up than NBA crowds. It creates a more exciting atmosphere for regular season games than there is in most NBA arenas.

Crowning a Champion

The NBA and NCAA crown champions in very different ways. The NBA playoffs last two long months, and the best of seven format ensures that upsets are rare and the best team usually wins it all. It’s an extremely fair system and the amount of games ensures that the league creates significant revenue. But what is fair is not necessarily exciting, as we saw this year with Golden State going unchallenged. College basketball’s system needs no explanation – March Madness is simply the best yearly event in sports.

Style of Play

Another area where college basketball has an edge is the various styles of play. Fortunately, the NBA has gone away from the isolation basketball that made Jordan’s Bulls, Duncan’s late 90s / early 00s Spurs, and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers so successful. Offenses play a much more visually pleasing pick-and-roll and ball movement style, with the most successful offenses surrounding the pick-and-roll with accurate three point shooters. However, it is mostly one note. Winning comes down to who can execute this style better (or who can defend it). College still features many styles of play. When I turn on a UNC game, I know that they are running after every possession St that Roy Williams doesn’t know what a time out is. I know that Louisville is going to be pressing, Syracuse is going to be in their match-up zone, and that Duke players are taught to undercut opponents in an attempt to draw a charge. The fact that a myriad of styles are still used at the college level makes the game unique.

These styles of play are largely linked to coaches. Unfortunately for college basketball, coaches are the only thing that remains familiar to fans. All of the best college players are gone after one year. With NBA basketball, you can follow a player from when is is 19 years old to when he is 35, and sometimes beyond. When Dirk Nowitzki finally won his title after over a decade of playoff disappointment, the moment was bigger than when Carmelo Anthony won a title in his one year at Syracuse. The journeys and legacy factor make NBA accomplishments feel more significant than NCAA accomplishments, especially if we’ve been watching that player for years.

If you haven’t figured it out, I favor NBA basketball over NCAA ball. The quality of play, player storylines, and favorable rule differences are some of the factors that tip the scale in the NBA’s favor. Having said that, good luck prying me away from the Tournament in March.

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