Here’s a secret: The NCAA Tournament is great even if Duke-Carolina was the only game you caught all year. The season is a long slog — it starts right after the World Series a.k.a. The Fall Classic. That was two seasons ago. Plus, unless you are an alum, it’s hard to get excited about college basketball when the NBA is standing right over there. The tournament is a different story. Upsets, the tension of a single elimination tournament, the gambling (shhhh!) and the glory of all day basketball (12:15 p.m. tip-offs!) make the tournament a must-see for any sports fan, regardless of your college basketball IQ. After consulting several experts we put together this guide for NBA fans parachuting into March Madness.
THERE ARE NO SUPER TEAMS
Drinking game alert: Take a swig whenever the parity of the game is mentioned. The four No. 1 seeds have more losses (23) than any other year. The top 10 lost a combined 74 games — also more than any other year. Translation: There is no favorite. “It’s more up for grabs,” Kenny Smith says. “So many teams are walking in thinking they have a legitimate shot.” Outside of a 16 seed beating a 1, no upset can really be considered an upset. Compare that with the top-heavy NBA, where only a handful of teams have a realistic shot at June basketball. “There’s only five or six teams in the NBA worth watching,” Charles Barkley says. “Unless it’s the Clippers, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Golden State or the Cavaliers, there’s no way in the world I would buy season tickets.”
THE OFFENSE IS FROM ANOTHER ERA
With Steve Nash running point and Mike D’Antoni on the bench, the Seven Seconds or Less Suns revolutionized the NBA. Now, with the defending champion Golden State Warriors having perfected the form, most teams run a variation of the Phoenix offense: high pick and rolls with marksmen spread beyond the three-point line. It creates space for shooters. It creates room for cutters. It’s difficult to stop. The college game has yet to catch on — for now.
“The college game is going toward that,” Reggie Miller says. “In rules meeting they’ve talked about freedom of movement, ‘shucking’ cutters, how post play has been too physical. I would not be surprised if in the next two or three years, you’ll see more high pick and rolls and more threes. They want scoring to increase because that brings in viewers. As good as defense is — and I didn’t play a lot of it — fans want to see scoring. They don’t want to see a 56-55 game.”
But don’t hold your breath waiting for a college Golden State Warriors to emerge.
“With the NBA, you have higher percentage shooters all over the court,” Wally Szczerbiak says. “They can shoot to a further distance and that opens up the floor, making the game less congested and claustrophobic. I think, at times, the college game gets to be like that.”
Following two consecutive stacked rookie classes, this is not a deep NBA draft class. But it’s intriguing watching prospects either sink (too many to mention) or swim (think Stephen Curry, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony) under the spotlight. This year, the consensus top pick in the NBA draft, LSU’s versatile forward Ben Simmons, is not in the tournament. Still, there are youngsters to monitor: Kentucky guard Jamal Murray has a polished offensive game; Kris Dunn from Providence will be a starting point guard in the NBA; Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, seniors who’ve improved each year, will contribute immediately next season. Then there is Brandon Ingram from Duke, a 6-foot-9 scorer with a pterodactyl’s wingspan, who might have usurped Simmons as the No. 1 overall pick.
“I think Ben Simmons could use another year in college to improve his jump shot. When he gets to the NBA, I think he’s going to be exposed for the fact that he can’t keep defenses honest,” Szczerbiak says. “I like Brandon Ingram’s skill set to translate to the NBA maybe right now over his. I just think he could be a Kevin Durant-type player with his length and shooting ability. He’s stronger than he gets credit for. He has that wiry, strong elasticity that you need in the NBA, along with the length and the shooting ability and the athleticism.”
For Kenny Smith, there is one major difference between college and the pros. “The speed of the game is so much slower,” he says. “For me as an NBA analyst, it’s like watching street traffic and then watching the Indy 500. It’s that different.”
One of the main reasons for that is the 30 second shot clock, which often rewards patient, disciplined teams that run deliberate offensive sets. It also might be hampering the player’s development.
“I think the NCAA did a great job of going from 35 to 30 seconds in the shot clock. I don’t think they went far enough. I’d like to see them drop that down, not to 24 like the NBA but 28,” Reggie Miller says. “It has to be a quicker pace. Make these kids make quicker decisions. It’s almost like we are pampering these young men. Everyone wants to run and gun and shoot and play fast, so why hold them back with a 30 second shot clock?”
But most casual college basketball fans aren’t following the NCAA Tournament for the style of play. “People watch basketball for the competition and there is no better competition,” Kenny Smith says. “The NCAA Tournament brings competition every night. They bring the storyline, they bring the heartache, the pain, the joy and the excitement.”
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