EA Sports hasn't produced a compelling college basketball game since Coach K back on the Sega Genesis. That was 1995.
More recently, their March Madness series has been one of the worst playing sports games of any kind, severely lagging behind the College Hoops competition delivered by 2K Sports.
But this year is different. First, there is no more competition as EA now has the college basketball license exclusively, so the pressure is really on the publisher to deliver a quality game or they might not be able to grab some of those 2K fans skeptical about trying out a new series. Second, March Madness is dead, and it's thankfully not only in name as EA has re-branded its game NCAA Basketball 09, and with it comes entirely new gameplay. Third, remember Coach K? Well, he might not be in the game, but EA licensed 320 of his peers through a new partnership with the National Association of Basketball Coaches. That means that this is the first game to not only feature the majority of Division 1 coaches, but these guys actually help you throughout your on-court rivalries and tournaments in terms of managing tempo, fatigued players, and shot selection by appearing in a pop-up window throughout the game with words of encouragement or instruction. And don't worry, if your team's coach wasn't licensed (missing coaches are Duke, UConn, Gonzaga, and Texas), you'll still see a coach that resembles him on the sidelines, only his name is now Coach Duke (or whatever missing coach you picked). Thankfully, there is a coach editor that enables you to go in and rename any coach in the game, even replacing the stuffy suit with a Hawaiian shirt or sweater.
It's this addition of the coaches, though, (and not their Hawaiian shirts) that you notice as soon as you turn on the game. As the game starts, you're not greeted by polygonal players or mascots, but a video of Coach Bill Self who breaks down the key new feature to the 09 title, tempo. Now, it's strange to call tempo a feature as games have been trying to capture the various tempos and styles of college ball for years, although for the most part, they've been pretty unsuccessful. NCAA 09 is on to something, though, as each team is assigned a desired tempo, and if you play within this tempo, your team will find success on the court. Try to take a halfcourt team and push the ball constantly on the break, however, and your players will be more prone to miss shots and turn the ball over because you're playing outside of their coached comfort zone.
You're even able to select pre-game strategies to help reinforce your style of play, like focusing on boxing out in order to limit your opponent's second chance points, or concentrating your team on stopping penetration in order to limit dribble drives and keep your opponent out of the lane. You're also able to use your defense to jump start your tempo if need be, calling for the full court trap to pressure the ball in the backcourt as you hope to create turnovers, or sitting back in the 2-3 zone in order to keep your opponent out of the key.
As Self explains in the intro, tempo is everything in the college game and NCAA 09 adds an on-screen display that helps you track not only the speed of the game, but which team is controlling that tempo. If you control the tempo, your team will be rewarded with a higher percentage of shot success, and as the game changes, you're also able to change your strategy on the fly, calling for your team to slow things down and work the clock, or if you're down big and need some points, you can try to adjust your lineup and call for a faster style of play to try and counter your opponent.
This is one of those features that could be really hit or miss, but the more I'm playing the game, the more I find myself really digging the tempo meter and how the different styles of the various teams really do affect the gameplay. I'm also finding that the new game engine (EA boasts of over 1,000 new animations) has really turned the franchise around, especially in the player intelligence arena as the ballers run around picks, set screens, and react to the defense in a much more fluid manner than years past.
And this sense of authenticity really carries over to all things NCAA 09 as the game features even more major tournaments, including the NCAA, NIT, Maui Invitational, Puerto Rico Tip-Off, the Anaheim Classic and the Old Spice Classic. Teams have alternative and throw back jerseys, the crowds come alive with student sections, mascots, cheerleaders, and even fans in skyboxes during March Madness, and there are a number of key gameplay enhancements from the NBA Live 09 engine like Pick and Roll control and quick strike ball handling that have also made their way onto the court.
Another area of the game that has been greatly improved is Dynasty mode. Start your new Dynasty and first thing you do is create your coach. Give him a name, pick what you want him to look like from 19 pre-made models, then give him an outfit (I prefer the red blazer and khakis). Next up, you can choose to start your coaching career from the ground up at whatever school offers you your first gig, or if you want to skip ahead to the big-time, you can select the option to coach any team in the game. Here, you also select your coaching style: up-tempo, balanced, or half-court.
If you go the "start from scratch" route with a team that offers you a job, thankfully, you're not completely out of luck as some decent schools will come to you out of the gate, Sure, you can always coach Army, Harvard, Yale, or the house that Nash built in Santa Clara, but on my initial list also appeared Boston College, Washington, and LSU, so you do get a few bigger basketball schools to coach if you so desire.
Next up is a set of options. You can play your Dynasty from 10-30 years, turn on or off simulation injuries, change the injury frequency rate, enable underclassmen to go pro, allow player transfers, and schedule customization.
Once you setup the game to your liking, you're finally able to dive into your school. ESPNU breaks down every team in every conference, giving letter grades to each squad's starters, bench, and recruits. There is a team preview that breaks down your team budget, who your key players are, your team ratings, and the pre-season rankings. You can also assign preseason training in a variety of categories (shooting, offense, defense, conditioning), and head to recruiting where you are given a list of goals from the athletic director like sign a player from a pipeline state or sign a McDonald's All-American. Once the recruiting process officially starts, you can then have your assistants go ahead and contact players through phone interviews and e-mail as well as sending top players a multimedia package containing the history of your program and the most recent team highlights. There is even the ability to sort potential recruits by position, height, interest, state ... you name it, which really makes it easy to find the player that best fits your needs.
As you advance through the years, there is even a new Dynasty yearbook that enables you to check out your history in stats, breaking down everything from your record to final poll ranking to NCAA tournament bid to your school's pride and team prestige. The second page of the yearbook for each season also shows your team leaders in the key stats as well as who your key recruits were, including each recruit's potential caliber of play heading into the new year.
Playing through my first season as Washington, I was able to advance to the Elite Eight, but with each game in the tournament, my team faced opponents who played with a completely different tempo, offensive, and defensive philosophy. I finally lost to Tennessee who basically trapped me all over the court and forced me to play a much faster tempo than my school was used to, which in turn led to a series of miscues that cost me the game. But I loved the fact that it wasn't easy. I loved the fact that you actually need to adapt to your opponents (who also got a lot tougher throughout the tournament). And for the first time in years, I'm actually really looking forward to an EA Sports college basketball game to ship, and this year it's actually shipping early, now scheduled to hit stores November 17.
It might not be 1995 all over again, but from what I've played so far, it might be the next best thing.