When you ask a casual sports fan whether they prefer college or professional basketball, they will likely reply that they prefer the NBA regular season, but that the NBA playoffs just cannot compete with NCAA March Madness. For several reasons which I will address in this column, playoffs in the NBA cannot come close to matching the hysteria that surrounds March Madness.
For those who are unaware, in Division I NCAA basketball there is a tournament held every year in March and April to determine that year’s national champion. 68 teams enter the tournament and play through a series of rounds, each taking place in a different geographic location. The teams that participate in the tournament are chosen based on both their performance in conference tournaments and their season as a whole. For example, a school such as Bryant University that plays in the lowly Northeastern Conference (NEC) will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament if they win their conference. Schools that play in more competitive conferences such as Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference, have a harder time winning their conference but can still be given an at-large bid for the tournament if tournament voters feel they performed well during the regular season against quality opponents. These types of bids are generally reserved for teams that play in the major conferences, yet teams from less competitive conferences still have the match to qualify so as they can win their divisions.
The tournament itself involves the teams playing in single-elimination games against opponents based on seeding. Prior to the start of the tournament, teams in each of the four regions are ranked one through sixteen. In order to weed out the worst teams, the first round of the tournament involves the one seeds playing the sixteen seeds, the two seeds playing the fifteen seeds, and so on. Unlike in the NBA where every team plays each other during the regular season, college basketball teams will mostly play conference opponents during the regular with a few games reserved for out-of-conference games. With the hundreds of basketball programs in Division I, it is impossible for teams to encounter every potential opponent they might face prior to the tournament. This makes the matchups more exciting and unpredictable, since a lower seed has a good chance of upsetting a higher seed, if the two come from wildly different conferences. For example, a team such as the University of Connecticut last year who plays in the lowly AAC did not face many big-name opponents during the 2013-14 regular season, and as a result, they were ranked as a seven seed. Yet, they beat higher ranked opponents who they were not able to play during the regular season, and went on to win the whole thing. It is not uncommon for particularly low seeds, such as eleventh seeded Dayton last year, to advance past the early rounds. These teams are known as “Cinderella teams.” Due to the unruly nature of March Madness, placing bets and filling out tournament prediction brackets has become wildly popular for even the most casual fan.
In contrast, playoff series in the NBA are all best-of-seven rather than single-elimination. This means that barring injury, upsets in the NBA playoffs are quite unlikely. Even if the better team has an off-night and loses one or even two games to their opponent, they still have a chance to win the series. Playing best-of-seven removes much of the suspense from NBA playoff series, and causes the playoffs each year to be quite predictable.
Another factor that makes March Madness more popular is the regular season structure. NBA teams play long 82-game seasons whereas college teams generally play around 30 games. Usually, the teams that make the NBA playoffs will be known weeks in advance, whereas there is much more uncertainty and speculation surrounding which college teams will qualify since teams are selected based on votes rather than their win-loss record.
The nature of NBA contracts creates a situation where teams generally have similar rosters year after year. In college there is much more turnover, and a spectacular recruiting class one year might turn a lowly program into a contender overnight. NBA teams are built more slowly and alternate years of competitiveness, with periods of rebuilding where they do not make the playoffs and have poor win-loss records. In college basketball, any team has the chance to win it all in any given year. This is simply not the case in the NBA. Last season, for example, I knew that my favorite team the Boston Celtics were going through a rebuilding phase. It was boring to watch them play during the regular season and I knew they would not make the playoffs. On the other hand, as a Connecticut resident and proud UCONN basketball fan, it was incredibly exciting to watch the team upset strong opponents such as Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky. As long as a college team can make the tournament, anything can happen. Hopefully this year’s March Madness will be as crazy and unpredictable as ever.