With NCAA March Madness 2000, Electronic Arts' college hoops series took a dramatic leap forward. It added several gameplay options, including such robust features as the dynasty mode, women's teams, 20 historical men's teams, and customizable gameplay options such as shot difficulty, block frequency, and steal frequency. It established March Madness as one of the most feature-rich sports series on the market, and it also solidified the series' reputation for solid play mechanics. This season, EA added the new coach mode and polished an already stellar game into the best college hoops simulation for the PlayStation.
March Madness 2001, as with last year's version, is highly customizable - even more than the brilliant NBA Live 2001. Players can compete in exhibition games, custom tournaments, the women's sweet 16, the all-time teams fantasy tournament, and the dynasty mode. New to this 2001 version is the coach mode, which is a part of the game's broader dynasty mode. In coach mode, you take a job at a small school, and you must meet certain criteria throughout the season, such as finishing with a winning record, winning 25-plus games, and defeating a ranked team, among others. Successful completion of these tasks can lead to jobs at higher-profile programs. Naturally, the bigger the school, the tougher the coach's challenges.
Visually, the game has been significantly improved. The developers have pumped up the already solid frame rates, and the gameplay is also considerably faster, with quicker moves and more responsive controls. The player models and the arenas have also been enhanced. Although the players are identified only by their jersey numbers, most are visually identifiable by their body shape, posture, and facial features. There are over 150 detailed arenas in the game, complete with team-specific colors and logos. The player animations are also more fluid, when compared with those in last year's product. Rockets guard Steve Francis was motion-captured for the game, and his quick, flowing style is evident in the new dunk and dribble animations.
Despite the robust features set and the solid visuals, March Madness 2001 does have some flaws in its gameplay. The AI, particularly on offense, still makes some silly mistakes - it'll throw the ball away too frequently or take the quick jumper without setting up a play and finding the open man. Additionally, the computer-controlled players have terrible floor spacing. Instead of spreading the floor and rotating the ball, players are usually bunched up around the lane. This phenomenon is particularly aggravating when playing against match-up zones, where the aforementioned floor spacing and the ball rotation become more important. On the defensive side of the court, there are entirely too many blocked shots on the default setting. Even if the frequency of blocked shots is turned down, there are some quirky collision detection problems between the player and the basketball that result in unrealistic swats. For example, it isn't uncommon to see defensive players block jumpers while they are standing several feet from the shooter.
However, March Madness 2001 shines in the transition game. With the game's intuitive controls, it's easy to run up and down the court, shooting jumpers and driving to the hoop. On the break, the shooters spread out to the wings and cutters find the lanes to the basket - it's rewarding to set players up for easy buckets. So, despite its nagging AI problems, March Madness 2001 is fast and fun to play.
The game also has a high quality presentation. The team-specific chants and bands return in March Madness 2001, and they bring an authentic college basketball atmosphere to the game. In fact, the developers have incorporated actual school fight songs played by the actual college bands. Adding to this true-to-life college hoops feel, Dick Vitale's repetitive commentary has been replaced by the two-man announcing team of Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery. The result is commentary that is more in tune with the on-court action, and Raftery's "the kiss" call on bank shots and his signature man-to-man remark meld seamlessly with the flow of the game.
Each of the deep gameplay modes in March Madness 2001 provides a rewarding and unique experience. The coach mode is an excellent addition to an already feature-packed college basketball game. The AI can be boneheaded at times, but overall March Madness 2001 delivers, with quick-paced gameplay, fluid animation, and detailed player models and arenas. The 2000 version of March Madness helped the series take a giant step forward, and this 2001 version reinforces its status as one of the best hoops series on the PlayStation, college or otherwise.