In previous years, college basketball gamers had a choice between EA and 2K's college offering. However, with the departure of 2K from the market, EA's NCAA Basketball 09 will be the only college basketball game in stores this holiday season. Luckily, EA has improved upon several nagging gameplay issues, resulting in its best college basketball effort to date. The most significant change for the series, formerly known as NCAA March Madness, is the use of the same game engine used in EA's NBA Live series. This has led to improved player and ball physics, dramatically reducing instances from years past when the ball seemed to teleport to different spots on the court. This has allowed EA to focus on improving upon the college atmosphere of previous titles.
As in earlier NCAA Basketball titles, the attention to detail and graphics is impressive. All 328 Division I teams are represented, and most arenas are exact replicas of the school's gym, with mascots and cheerleaders adding to the ambiance. More fan chants have been added this year, taking the total to 400, of which half are school specific. Dick Vitale, Brad Nessler, and Erin Andrews return to provide solid commentary. EA has also added team tempo control and unique team playbooks, which causes each team to play the same on the virtual hardwood as they do in real life. Game tempo control dictates the speed at which teams play, and each team is supposed to excel at a particular speed. Team tempo dictates the speed at which each team excels and, while it causes the CPU-controlled teams to play more like their real-life counterparts, the impact on user-controlled teams is questionable. For instance, if you're an up-tempo team like North Carolina, you're supposed to shoot early in the shot clock to stay within the appropriate tempo, but the benefit and rationale for doing so is unclear.
In dynasty mode, you can choose any of the three tempos, which gives you the option to play in whatever style you'd like. Before each game, you choose three areas to focus on in the game, such as spread out the attack, or manage fatigue. You'll get coaching tips from the sideline depending on which areas you choose to concentrate on with EA's new coach feedback system. EA has partnered with the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), which means actual coaches are giving the majority of the in-game tips. While the tips aren't always helpful, the college atmosphere is enhanced by seeing Rick Pitino and Billy Donavan stalking the sidelines.
Revamped playbooks and signature play calling are also a welcome addition. In previous years, there was little need to run set plays due to how easy it was to get to the rim and dunk the ball. However, with the new game engine, set plays work well and are needed when you're playing as one of the less-dominant teams. Because right analog dribble moves (renamed "quick-strike ankle breakers") aren't particularly responsive and a gravitational-like force sticks the offensive player to his defender, set plays are needed to free up a player for an open shot. You can even customize your playbook to add the plays you run the best. Defensively, there are several trapping options, as well as zone defense not seen in the pro games. These defenses can be effective, and with the ability to quickly call different plays utilizing the signature play calling, it is easy to develop a unique style of play suited to your team's strengths.
Another new feature that is done well is the pick-and-roll control. By holding the left trigger, your closest teammate will come over to provide a screen. After dribbling off the pick and releasing the left trigger, your teammate will roll toward the basket, causing the defense to either switch defenders or get caught behind the play. This technique leads to either a great low post shot or an open jumper from the guard. It's an effective technique and one that doesn't feel cheap or unrealistic.
However, not all gameplay flaws have been addressed. The most frustrating gameplay issue is the lack of control on both sides of the ball. On offense, the aforementioned quick-strike moves don't work well, and often you'll find yourself stuck in an animation that prevents passing, shooting, dribbling, or whatever you're trying to do at that moment. In addition, passing without the use of icon passing is risky and unpredictable at best. For example, you might find yourself on a three-on-one fast break, dribbling directly at the defender to force him to commit. Once the defense does commit to the ball handler, you could find yourself stuck in an animation where you pick up your dribble, delaying the fast break. Then, when trying to pass to your teammate breaking to the basket to the right, you see the ball go in the other direction to your teammate that stopped five feet from the basket. This forces you to use the direct-passing icons, which work well. However, often you will find a slight delay in the ability to shoot the ball after performing a direct pass, leading to frustrating missed opportunities.
Defensively, trying to play the passing lanes will make you want to pull your hair out. Your opponent will be passing the ball around the perimeter, and even when you've timed your steal attempt perfectly, the ball will often go right over your head. Or worse, the ball might go through your hands. Then, for some reason, without hitting any buttons or even trying to play the passing lanes, you steal the ball. It's all very frustrating.
Dynasty mode is largely unchanged and remains quite deep. You can pick a school and coaching tempo, recruit players, schedule games, and allocate resources for training and game planning. However, authentic schedules from this season and the ability to play only one season are absent. New is the dynasty yearbook, which allows you to look back on previous seasons' top performers. For true simulation gamers this might be frustrating because unless you're playing 10- to 15-minute halves, the stats just won't match up to those of other teams in the country, making it hard to have a player named All-American or break school records. But because dynasty mode is solid, this won't be a major detraction for most gamers.
The user interface of NCAA Basketball 09 has been upgraded and is quite user friendly. In particular, the online menus are much easier to navigate, and several game modes such as Game of the Week, NCAA Rivalries, and Classic Matchups enhance the experience. In addition, the new Rival Challenge allows you to track other users online who play as rival teams, teams in your conference, or who also use your team, and challenge them to games quickly without the need to enter a lobby. The major letdown of the online mode is the noticeable omission of online team play. With most other EA Sports titles going in that direction, it was a bit surprising that NCAA Basketball 09 didn't add this option. At least the online content that is here runs well and is lag free.
While there is no question that NCAA Basketball 09 still has some gameplay issues to correct, the addition of game tempo control, custom playbooks, effective pick-and-roll mechanics, and easy-to-use play calling options has made this game a viable alternative to the NBA titles for casual and hardcore gamers alike.