For basketball fans it comes down to this: If you already own NBA Live 2003, then there isn't much point in purchasing March Madness 2003, because EA Sports simply hasn't made enough gameplay changes to make it feel even remotely different from its NBA counterpart. Granted, all of the modes and options have been changed to fall in line with the NCAA aspect of the game, so you'll get to participate in the NCAA Tournament, recruit players in the off-season, and even select which nonconference teams to play against during the season, and there are some interesting coaching options, but deep down, fans of NBA Live 2003 will only consider this a palette-swapped version of the game. On the other hand, the fact that it so closely resembles NBA Live 2003 isn't necessarily a bad thing, since NBA Live 2003 has excellent, fast-paced, and smooth gameplay, largely made possible by the incredible and easy-to-use freestyle control system. Ultimately, if you're a college basketball lunatic who absolutely needs a game with college teams, then NCAA March Madness 2003 is a good way to go, but if you're looking for a vastly different experience from NBA Live 2003, then look elsewhere.
NCAA March Madness 2003 offers four main game modes to choose from: single season, NCAA Tournament, EA Sports Maui Invitational, and dynasty. Single season is pretty self-explanatory. In the NCAA Tournament, you can jump right into the tournament for the national championship and manually change any of the participants. The EA Sports Maui Invitational is another tournament option where you can also change any of the teams in the four initial brackets of the tournament, but as with every sports game, the mode that will attract the most attention is the franchise mode, or the college equivalent, which is called the dynasty mode. In the dynasty mode, you can select a team and then decide which teams to play outside of the conference. For example, if you choose Duke, then you need to fill the rest of the schedule with teams outside the ACC. When you're done setting the schedule, you can start messing around with some of the management options found under coaching priorities, such as the amount of time spent on watching films (of other teams), on strength training, on speed training, on shooting drills, or on school spirit. However, there's a limited amount of practice time, so you can choose to either put an equal amount of time into all of the options or put special emphasis on two or three of them. Before starting a game, it's also possible to change the roster and look at some basic information, including statistics and standings.
If your team performed well enough over the course of the season and made it into the tournament, then you won't have to start worrying about recruiting, but if your team has been sent packing, then it's time to think about the next season. Naturally, you'll be informed of which players on your team will be graduating or moving on to the NBA so that you can adjust your recruiting strategy accordingly. At the recruitment screen, a list of players and the schools they're interested in are prominently displayed. By selecting one of these players, you can choose to have the head or assistant coach visit or call one of them, but be aware that you have a limited number of recruitment points, and a personal visit by the head coach costs much more than a phone call by the assistant coach--though the whole point is to persuade a great player to come to your school, so in most cases, it's worth spending your points. Naturally, the better programs will have a much easier time recruiting top-tier players, while the lesser teams will have to scrape players from the bottom of the barrel. After recruitment, you can decide which players to cut and which players to redshirt, and then it's off to the start of a new season.
While the modes in NCAA March Madness 2003 are different from those in NBA Live 2003, the gameplay really isn't. Other than some slight changes to shot physics (players seem to shoot a little slower, and positioning seems to have more effect on whether or not the ball goes into the basket) and the computer's propensity to run half-court traps when you have the lead, the game really isn't all that different. In fact, most of the teams in the game won't even run any sort of zone defense, a distinguishing characteristic of college basketball. These problems aside, the fact that it plays so much like NBA Live 2003 isn't entirely a bad thing. Passing is incredibly smooth, and control of the players is precise and fun because of the freestyle control scheme that lets you perform different dribble moves by making different movements on the right analog stick. Posting up is equally easy to execute, and all of the defensive facets of the game are great.
Unfortunately, the visual aspect of March Madness 2003 is probably its weakest point. Much like the gameplay itself, all of the arenas in the game are the same as those in NBA Live 2003--only the graphics on the floor of the court (such as the school name, color scheme, and logo) are changed. Every team seems to have the same group of generic player models, a few of which look quite bad, and surprisingly, the frame rate jumps around quite a bit, particularly when the defense is running a half-court trap and there are three or four players directly in front of the camera. It certainly looks as though a little more time should have been spent tweaking the graphics.
As far as sound is concerned, you get some of the great stadium noise from NBA Live 2003, such as the "three" chant whenever you take a three-point shot, but a host of all-new college sounds have also been added. You can hear different school band songs as well as team-specific chants. The commentary is actually quite entertaining because of famed college commentator Dick Vitale's raw energy and passion for college basketball, but the only problem is that it doesn't flow all that well. It actually sounds like a series of prerecorded audio clips taped together to sound like commentary.
The lack of online play completes a package that could have been much better and much more enticing to fans of NBA Live 2003 looking for a somewhat different basketball experience--those people might want to try NCAA Basketball 2K3 instead. At the same time, anyone who has yet to play NBA Live and is looking for an incredibly fun college basketball game with great control would do well to check out NCAA March Madness 2003.