College hoops has plenty of pros
By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

Spent all day Saturday watching college hoops: North Carolina-Wake Forest; UCLA-Michigan State; Stanford-Gonzaga; Cal-St. Joe's.

Saw the Bruins make 16 of 34 foul shots. Saw the Bears miss a shot to win. Saw Gonzaga's exciting Ronny Turiaf -- Spokane's Don King -- sit out most of the game because of college ball's outrageous five-foul disqualification rule.

Dajuan Wagner
Dajuan Wagner won the NIT championship in his only year at Memphis.
In short, I saw teams that aren't as good as they can be because players like LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire and Dajuan Wagner -- players who, in an earlier era, would be playing college ball right now -- are playing pro ball.

And you know what? I dug every second of those choppy, rough-hewn, personnel-deficient college tilts.

College hoops? I love this game.

So I'm here to turn my back on the Church of the Professional Halfcourt Isolation, and dip my head for a baptism in the river near the Church of the College Floor Burn.

You say Hawks-Heat? I say Georgia Tech-Miami.

You say Celtics-Wizards? I say Boston College-Georgetown.

You say Warriors-Sonics? I say Stanford-Gonzaga. Which is, of course, where we started this whole thing.

I have a pal who dismisses big-time college football and basketball as pure hypocrisy, as nothing more than Overt Talent Factories for the pros, Cash Cows for the universities and Shams of Humanity disguised as "Student-Athletes." To which I usually say: Yeah, so?

I mean, you're either with me or without me on this one. I prefer to be with me, so before we settle in for our Dec. 25 NBA feast -- the only appealing alternative to a dysfunctional family Christmas table full of misunderstood nuance, brooding silence and ancient grudges -- let's pause to give a hearty cheer for the NBA's farm system and ennumerate Five Reasons Why College Basketball Beats NBA Basketball on any Given Winter Night:

1. 32 Games vs. 82 Games
Most college teams play around 30-32 games a year, ladled out in small doses from November to March. The effect is pleasant: A steady, but not overwhelming, dose of cage action that plays out in major conferences, in a regular system of two games a week come conference action. Reliable and re-assuring, the sensation is not unlike curling up with your favorite nap blanket every four or five days or so.

By contrast, the NBA plays 82 games spread out from October to April, sort of a Bataan Death March of Missed 15-Foot Jump Shots. The games start when your mind is still focused on baseball playoffs, and end when the Tax Man comes -- when your season finale is linked with the concurrent thought, "Holy Christ, I hope I don't get audited this year." That's not what your dime-store shrink would call "Positive Identification Reaction."

It's simple economics. When dollars chase goods, you got inflation on your hands. When goods chase dollars, you've got a happy consumer. In the college game, the fan chases the game. It works.

Duke fans
These fans don't need flying free T-shirts to get them excited about their team.
2. The Crowds
The energy, man!

At a college game, if one harnessed the energy and converted it to voltage, the output from Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium or Oregon's MacArthur Court might be enough to watch, say, the Eiffel Tower go from darkness to a bright, shining beacon.

At a pro game, if one harnessed the energy from most any regular season game, the output might be able to result in the 5-watt interior light of my '92 Jetta flickering slowly to a dull, yellowish beam.

Have you checked out some of the highlights lately from, say, a game in Atlanta, or Miami? Thousands upon thousands of NBA fanatics coming to the games dressed as empty seats. I haven't seen such depressing footage since Spinal Tap unveiled its Free-Form Jazz Odyssey in front of 45 or so disgruntled metal-heads in the gig at the amusement park.

Oh, but the college game! At the Dean Dome on Saturday, during one particularly ebullient moment for the home crowd in the triple-overtime tilt, the camera showed hundreds upon hundreds of Carolina students, pogo-sticking madly, chest-bumping and embracing one another. All I could think was: Man, would Larry Eustachy clean up in a scene like that, or what?

Natural Lights for all Tar Heel fans! And two Natural Lights for all Tar Heel co-eds!

It brought me back to the outrageous bits of fandemonium I'd seen and participated in at Pauley Pavilion in my youth, including a wholly incongruous court-rush after a mediocre UCLA team beat a mediocre Louisville team on a bad goaltending call that went the Bruins' way. Hey, we were 20 years old, and most of us were drunk. What are you gonna do?

3. Cheerleading Squads and Bands vs. Paula Abdul Dreamers and Incessant Sound Bites of Bad Rock
While the pro game offers us would-be starlets starving for a big break whilst shimmying in spandex set to the migraine-inducing beats of C+C Music Factory, the college game offers us so much more.

Bands, while admittedly laden with the dreaded Band Geek, set your blood coursing with a brass-heavy rendition of the college fight song. Meanwhile, bright-eyed future soccer moms in short skirts, oozing the wholesomeness of American youth, turn cartwheels and flips -- while the Humbert Humbert in all of us watches from afar.

Better move on before that next item sinks any lower.

Hakim Warrick
Hakim Warrick's last-second hustle on D clinched Syracuse's championship last year.
4. The Game Itself
One of my best NBA pals tells me: "You know where the world's greatest athletes reside."

And I usually respond: "Yes, in the Olympic decathlon. So what does Dan O'Brien have to do with this argument?"

OK, so the NBA player runs faster, jumps higher and dribbles better. Since when did our tastes in life have to reside in the Empirical Realm? Like Louis Armstrong said about jazz: If you've gotta ask what's better about the college game, you'll never know.

But we'll try to explain, anyway.

Players hustle more. Players try harder on defense. Ball-movement is more of an emphasis. And possessions don't always end with one player in an individual matchup while four players stand as far away as possible and do their best impression of Rodin's "The Thinker."

All of this adds up to an aesthetic that, taken whole, creates a product more appealing than the one offered by the far superior athletes. Sorta like the Florida Marlins, with $49 million worth of game, dumping the New York Yankees, with $115 million worth of game.

Know what I'm saying?

5. The Tourney vs. NBA Playoffs
The most obvious reason to prefer the college game. In one corner, you've got March Madness, a phrase so inextricably linked to the American sports consciousness, it's both a tired cliche and, I do believe, an official patent.

In the other corner, you've got an eight-week NBA playoff ordeal with a format so torturously slow, you could grow beards between first-round games.

I will admit, a great NBA Finals or a great Conference Finals, is a surpassingly lovely thing. I think of Lakers-Celtics clashes in the '80s, or Kings-Lakers two years ago, or the Kings-Mavericks series of just last year. But you have to strain to find those.

On the other hand, I can toss out just a few key words -- Valparaiso and Valvano or Gonzaga and Gathers -- and if you don't either get coated in goose flesh or have to take a proverbial "moment" at your laptop ... well, then, man -- you aren't much of an American, are you, pal?

Me? I'm an American. Right down to my (Ohio State/St. John's/Fresno State) Red, (Home Jersey) White and (Duke/Carolina/UCLA) Blue gym shorts.

Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes every Monday for Page 2.



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