March Madness And The Debate Of Quality Versus Entertainment

Well, then. Since Andrew Sharp of SBNation.com, whose work I genuinely enjoy, decided to pistol whip me, drag me out into the street, and execute me like the dog I am, I suppose I’d better respond.

Here are a few basic outlines, because I’d like to get this stuff in an organized fashion.

  • No one, especially not me, is arguing that the NCAA tournament is not more entertaining. It is. It clearly is. It provides more moments in a single day of the tournament that have you jumping out of your seat yelling than the entire NBA playoffs combined. It’s vastly more entertaining. The players are playing without regard to contracts, their health, their marketability, or their image. They just want to win. This is a shot at glory, one brief charge towards history. And while the vast majority of them end up as nothing more than bar trivia or part of the yearly highlight package for a few seasons, it means the world to them. It’s easy to connect to. The NCAA tournament is more entertaining than the NBA.
  • That said, my point is centrally focused on the quality of the basketball. And high quality basketball? Is often, if not primarily, less entertaining. It’s a function of rote knowledge of how to execute. An example. About 700,000 times in the course of the tournament, some gangly, slow white kid will throw himself across the floor, diving for a loose ball. Now, forget the fact that what will of course end up happening is either Slowy McWonderbread will fail to get to the ball in time as it sails out of bounds, or that if he does get it, the opponent will simple reach all over him, creating a tie-up, which, because of the terrible rules of the NCAA tournament, will simply end with the opponent being handed the ball anyway. That moment where he dives is exciting. And we love the kid for it. Giving it his all. Laying it all on the line. Bleeding for his team. OTHER CLICHES! The problem? Rip Hamilton is outracing that kid, picking the ball up, and throwing a perfect 35 foot outlet pass for a dunk. While Weepy McElson is trying to get his floppy hair out of his face.
  • They’re amateurs. That’s not knocking them. It’s a fact. They’re not as good. That’s what makes the competition so good! They’re prone to screwing up, which leads to comebacks! The full court press works!  NBA guards would be slicing and dicing that trap like it was nothing. Comebacks in the NBA inside a minute? Really f’ing hard. Why? Guys know how to get the ball inbounds, and can get it to guys who can hit free throws. I recognize the free throw shooting by NBA bigs isn’t exactly awesome, but let’s look at the totals.
  • I’m not talking about how entertaining the game is, I’m talking about the quality of the players and execution thereof. Not that somehow watching Cleveland pound Detroit into oblivion is a better watch than MSU and Maryland trading buzzer beaters. Of COURSE that’s more entertaining.
  • I watch the tournament! I watched 90% of the games this weekend, and enjoyed it. It’s not a question of if it’s entertaining. It’s whether it’s as good. And it’s not. Who cares if it’s better though? The average fan doesn’t. They’d much rather watch Weepy Wonderbread diving across the floor and a dude jacking up a shot with 30 seconds left on the shot clock than Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko running a pick and roll to death. But which is better basketball?
  • Sharp contends that the quality of play is not that far apart, thanks to “dribble-dribble-drive-foul.” But isn’t that defense? Isn’t that at least being aware of where to be and how to stop your opponent? These kids can’t even get penetration (which isn’t surprising if you look at most of their faces-HEYO) against bad defense. They’re just tossing it around the perimeter, and then taking threes from five steps behind the line. That’s good basketball? No. It’s not working for a quality shot, it’s not executing, it’s vomiting up a shot and watching it drop. But is it entertaining? Hell yes!
  • Which is odd, because the biggest problem with the college game? They can’t shoot, comparatively. Look at the defense being played, and then compare the results when they try and hit basic 12 foot baseline jumpers. It’s maddening, if you follow the pro game. KU-UNI was the most entertaining game of the tournament, and the winning team shot 40%, the losing team 44%. Some teams can get hot, but again, good Lord, the defense. But again, this doesn’t make it less exciting. That’s why the Suns are so exciting. They don’t play defense AND can shoot.
  • Look, I’m far from a basketball expert. The goal of my career and this blog? To learn more about the game. Well, that and to make fun of Vince Carter. But mostly to learn. The More You Know. Dunh-dunh-duhn. But it’s not hard to be able to look at the execution and recognize the NBA is superior. Why wouldn’t it be? They’re professionals. The others are amateur, “student” athletes. But the players that make the tournament truly great, outside of those launching ill-advised shots that require juevos the size of watermelons? NBA talent. Sharp ends his little letter with some pictures of NBA greats whose careers began in college. Only they didn’t begin in college. They began in high school, and before that when they picked up a basketball and found they liked the game. College was just another step. And the fact that those images bring to mind some of the greatest moments in college basketball proves the point.  The tournament’s great for these little upsets from unknown players from unknown schools who will be selling us insurance in a few years, but the championships are most often won by those who are simply better, and more talented, and those are the guys using the NCAA (as the NCAA is blatantly and disgustingly using them) to get to the NBA.
  • Sharp’s point is a fine one. March Madness is way more entertaining. But then again, if you look at the ratings, Lifetime’s going to demolish IFC. Pizza Hut is a multi-billion dollar company. But that doesn’t mean Lifetime’s making better movies, or that Pizza Hut isn’t poisoning you into obesity.
  • One final note. Sharp gives the impression that I just set off on attacking the NCAA because I’m a snob (which I am). Not true. Here’s the actual chain of events. I point out something that is horribly executed during an NCAA game consistently (I believe the first time it was their inability to throw outlet passes at all, but it may have been missing shots with poor selection, or the whole “I can’t dribble even though I’m a starting guard for a nationally televised basketball game.” It’s hard to remember.). Then immediately people jump down my throat because I’m just supposed to shut up and down the candy-sweet delights of a team with poor athletes and bad execution managing to topple a team with marginal talent and horrible execution. And that leads to amped feelings on both sides, and statements like this from Peter Robert Casey (see how easy it is to link someone? Bud don’t worry, I don’t blame you, guys that prefer college ball naturally like it sloppy. How is your mother? HEYO-What do you mean that’s not funny and just sort of childish?/ivebeenderailed). Which are, you know, not true.

So listen, it’s okay, Andy. No one is arguing that the NCAA tournament isn’t the most exciting sporting event in the country, or that it’s not all fun to watch teams with heart and hustle knock off big time programs before inevitably getting their asses handed to them by the NEXT big time program with more talent.  The ratings are better, the money is better, it’s infinitely more popular. The people have spoken. Just like they did when they made a certain movie $100 million dollars.

So here’s a letter of our own.

Dear NCAA tournament swooners: It’s totally cool that you prefer the NCAA tournament. It’s wildly exciting and fun to watch.

It’s filled with stunning visuals that last a lifetime.

It tells a heartwarming tale (for a little while) that we can all enjoy, and it inevitably ends with many of us drunk and losing our pool money.

So don’t worry, we capitulate. You really are the coolest kids in the room. We’ll be over in the other room watching players that can actually execute the simplest and most effective basketball set in existence. Don’t mind us.

And if you don’t believe us that you’re the coolest, just ask Kangaroo Jack.

NOTE: This blogpost is unnecessarily snobbish and hipster-ish in honor of SXSW and for entertainment purposes only. It’s tone and Yo Momma Jokes should not be taken seriously, much like the validity of the NCAA’s process of selecting a champion.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.