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Monday, November 26, 2018

Separating the Grownups From the Kids in Basketball

Whenever a professional sports team starts a season in a particularly atrocious fashion, someone inevitably half-seriously says that (insert name of best college team that season in that sport) could beat the struggling professional team. While that may be a good punchline for a joke, it is not serious analysis.

For a hot minute, we heard speculation that Duke's basketball team could beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. While Duke looks like a serious NCAA championship contender and the Cavaliers do not look very good at all--although they have played a lot better in their past two games, beating Philadelphia and Houston--the idea that a college team is better than an NBA team is not well thought out, as we could all see on Wednesday as Gonzaga defeated Duke 89-87 in the Maui Invitational Championship game. Are we now supposed to think that at least two college teams could beat the Cavaliers?

The notion that even the best college team is better than the worst NBA team is not logical. The worst NBA team has multiple players who starred in college and/or internationally; the NBA players are, in general, much more mature physically, mentally and emotionally than college players. Even if the best college team on its best day could beat the worst NBA team on its worst day one time (which is possible, though not likely if the NBA team is taking the game seriously), that college team would not win 10 games over the course of an NBA season, while that worst NBA team would be a heavy favorite to win the NCAA title.

The reality is that Early Entry Players Have Diluted Both College and Pro Basketball, as I noted over a decade ago: "March Madness is always exciting...but it is obvious that the overall level of play in college basketball is not as high as it used to be--and that is hardly a surprise considering how many of the very best players are 'one and done' guys who go to the NBA after their freshman seasons, not to mention the number of players who went straight to the NBA from high school in the past decade before the NBA forbade that from happening. For better or worse, most of the best basketball players in the world who are 19 or older are all in the NBA."

The college game was undoubtedly better and deeper in the past than it is now, which is not to say that the great college teams from previous eras could have beaten the worst NBA teams. Think about it this way: it has been three decades since the best college players in the U.S.--not the best team, but the best players taken from all of the top teams--could win an Olympic gold medal. The pro game, whether overseas or in the NBA, is simply a level above the college game. Both sports should be appreciated on their own merits but no matter how good a college team looks against other college teams and/or how bad a pro team looks against other pro teams there is a clear separation between the pro ranks and the amateur ranks.

Charley Rosen put it well over a decade ago in response to a reader's question about the pro game versus the college game: "The NBA game has a huge advantage in player talent, offensive and defensive prowess, coaching, officiating and the overall quality of performance in every aspect but one. The only advantage the college game enjoys is the consistent enthusiasm of its players. And this is true only because some veteran NBA players on basement-dwelling teams will take an occasional game off late in the season. The worst NBA team would trounce the NCAA champs by upwards of 30 points." 

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 AM



At Tuesday, November 27, 2018 6:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A somewhat related question that I often see being asked is how well will the best Euroleague teams do, for example, over a seven-game series against the worst NBA teams.

A lot of people think it will be just as much of a mismatch as if it was an NCAA team involved, but I kind of doubt it -- the level of play in Europe has gone up quite a bit over the years, and even back in the days the coaching and organization of the teams was very high (perhaps even higher than the NBA because spoiled superstars demanding the ball all the time while playing no defense are much less of a problem in Europe).

At Tuesday, November 27, 2018 10:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Euroleague teams are professional teams, so in general I agree that they would do better against NBA teams than NCAA teams would.

Among the three categories (NBA, Euroleague, NCAA), the most competitive matchup would likely be Euroleague versus NCAA. There is a significant gap between even the best Euroleague teams and any NBA team. In FIBA play during recent years when Team USA has consisted of minor league players and collegians Team USA has still been one of the better squads, albeit not necessarily the best--and those minor league players/collegians would be beaten by even the worst NBA team.


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