Every basketball season, we can count on a few things: Duke will be a top 10 team, LeBron James will disappoint his fans in the postseason, and basketball lovers everywhere will argue about whether pro basketball or college basketball is superior.
(For the record, I hate this debate. It seems terribly unproductive; if you don’t like college basketball, turn it off. If you hate the NBA, watch something else. This isn’t a standards war; arguing for the NBA doesn’t mean that college basketball will go away, nor does defending the college game impact the NBA in any way.)
However, I’ll tell you that I’m a college basketball guy. I love March Madness more than I love the NBA playoffs—there’s no better stage for David-versus-Goliath matchups than the NCAA Tournament. I love the passion of the players and the insanity of the student fans. (You can’t storm the court in the NBA.) I love knowing that at least some of these players are getting educations while playing hoops, and that they walk around campus just like anyone else. I love that you can tune into two teams you’ve never seen before and learn about them and their players, and then weeks later see one of those teams celebrate at center court after punching a ticket to the Big Dance. I love figuring out who is the best of the 346 Division I teams despite the fact that disparities in conference difficulty and the learning curve of college ball make this nearly impossible. (I love that tonight they played a game on the deck of an aircraft carrier while the NBA continued its labor talks.)
But that’s just me.
Here’s why I sat down to write: I started to discuss this topic with Twitter friend @Neildos (who, for the record, is one of the smartest basketball fans I know and happens to prefer the NBA) earlier tonight, and the conversation led me to wonder about the data backing (or not backing) some of the common arguments on the pro-NBA side. One of the standard points against the college game is the terrible shooting and the lack of athleticism compared to the NBA. I won’t debate the second point; the NBA has the benefit of cherry picking the best of the best, which is why someone like Jimmer Fredette, who dominated in college, is expected to struggle to beat NBA point guards offensively (and stay with them defensively).
However, I take some exception to the first point, which is a staple of any anti-college argument. Here’s some data on shooting percentages, all from the 2010-2011 college and NBA seasons:
- The San Antonio Spurs led the NBA in three-point percentage at 39.7%. Northern Arizona led the NCAA at 42.5%. Limiting our comparison to “major” conference teams (which you’re more likely to see on TV than Northern Arizona), Ohio State led at 41.3%. This is likely due in part to the fact that the college three-point line is three feet closer to the basket.
- 13 college teams had three-point percentages higher than the Celtics.
- The median college team (Northwestern State) shot 34.5% from beyond the arc, compared to 35.5% for the median NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers. The worst college team, the Niagara Purple Eagles, shot just 27.5% for three, compared to an NBA low of 31.6% from the Toronto Raptors.
- Boston led the NBA in field goal percentage at 48.6%. Kansas led college ball at 51.4% Six college teams out-shot the Celtics.
- The median college teams (most notably Arkansas and tournament darling Florida State) shot 43.6%. The median NBA team, again the 76ers, shot 46.1%.
- The worst college team from the floor was Alcorn State at just 36.9%, which is terrible. The worst NBA team (Milwaukee) crushed this, coming in at 43.0%.
I started with three-point and field-goal percentages because they’re a better way of analyzing the effectiveness of an offense than raw points per game numbers. That’s especially true when comparing one version of the game which is 48 minutes long, with 24-second shot clocks, to a version which is 40 minutes long with 35-second shot clocks. But perhaps an even better starting point is the Points Per Shot metric, because this blends all three methods of scoring into a simple measure of efficiency: how well are you able to turn shots into points?
- Denver led the NBA in this category, at 1.33 points per shot. The median teams averaged 1.21, and the last place team (Milwaukee) came in at 1.15.
- The top college teams annihilated Denver’s 1.33 points per shot. In fact, no fewer than 49 college teams had PPS numbers matching or higher than the Denver Nuggets.
- In fact, the median college teams, of which there are several, beat the NBA median, coming in at 1.26 points per shot.
- The worst college teams are far, far worse than the worst NBA teams in this measure. Little USC Upstate registers a 1.04.
A final point of analysis here concerns the complaint that the college game has a 35-second shot clock, which potentially makes each possession up to 11 seconds longer than an NBA possession. In other words, NBA fans hate the pace of the college game. They believe it is too slow. Let’s find out. Keep in mind that the NBA game is 48 minutes, whereas the college game is 40 minutes.
- The NBA shot clock allows each team a minimum of 60 possessions, assuming that they use every second of every possession, whereas the college game allows 34 possessions. Despite this, NBA teams average about 80 shots per game. College teams average around 54 shots per game. This means that NBA teams use possessions at a rate of 1.33 times the minimum speed. College teams use possessions at a rate of 1.58 times their minimum.
- What does that mean in real terms? NBA teams, on average, use about 18 seconds per possession. College teams use roughly 22 seconds. Certainly a difference, but not a huge one.
So what do I make of this?
- The range of offensive skill (i.e., the difference between the best teams and the worst teams) in college basketball is greater than it is in the NBA. This makes sense when you think about games between SEC powerhouses and tiny schools from small towns which often end in scores such as 104-53. This also seems logical when we consider that the NBA is made up of the best college players; even the 12th man on the worst NBA roster was, at worst, a solid contributor in college. This means that, night in and night out, the NBA is “more competitive.” Spreads are smaller.
- Most importantly, college offense is not nearly as bad as NBA fans would like to believe. There are fewer shots per minute in college due to the longer shot clock (1.4, versus 1.67 in the NBA), but this should not be confused with poor shooting ability. In reality, the average college team misses less than one more shot per game than the median NBA team would miss given the same 40 minute game and a 35-second shot clock. So you can argue that NBA players are more athletic, and you can argue that there is more parity in the NBA, but unless you think you’re going to notice one additional missed shot every game and a half, it’s really unlikely that you’ll notice an actual difference in offensive skill between college and the NBA.
- This final one is a bit subjective, but having seen the data I believe that the 35-second shot clock is overrated as a detractor from the college game. Yes, college teams spend four more seconds per possession, on average, than NBA teams do. But NBA fans often make it sound like college teams are using all 35 seconds, whereas the NBA gets to the rim immediately. That’s not the case. It’s 22 seconds per shot versus 18 seconds, and that just isn’t significant in my mind.
Ultimately, this is all about preference. Most of the reasons why I prefer college basketball have less to do with the product on the floor than they do with the environment surrounding it. (And it’s not because I come from a college town; Boston generally couldn’t care less about college basketball, and they love their Celtics.) I do enjoy the NBA and there are times when I stop and think how much I love that flavor of basketball, but if I were stuck on a desert island with one brand of ball, I’ll take college and love it. As long as I can take some buffalo wings with me to the island.
Now it’s your turn. Are you an NBA person, or a college basketball person? What draws you to one or the other?
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