This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at NCAA Basketball 09.
As I mentioned when I looked back at NCAA March Madness 08, college basketball games were something that I wasn’t able to enjoy for many years. Due to an inability to secure international likeness rights for the NCAA, those titles were only released in North America. Universal adapters, certain cheat devices, and modded consoles were – for the most part- the only way we could play those NTSC releases in PAL regions. The PlayStation 3 was region free however, and after a friend gifted me one, I’ve been able to import a handful of NTSC games, including college basketball titles.
My collection currently includes the aforementioned NCAA March Madness 08, as well as the game I’m looking back at today: its sequel, NCAA Basketball 09. I also own NCAA Basketball 10, and 2K Sports’ College Hoops 2K7 and College Hoops 2K8. I’ll be getting to those in due course, but for now, let’s look at the 2009 season release from EA Sports. The series rebranded itself to NCAA Basketball, but did the 09 edition succeed in being more than just a mere name change? Let’s take a look back…way back…
I’ve already talked about the oddity of seeing NCAA branding and content in menus that bear a striking resemblance to NBA Live, so I won’t spend too much time on that here. Suffice to say though, being far more familiar with NBA Live 09, it’s just as odd to finally play NCAA Basketball 09 and recognise elements that are very similar to EA’s NBA title. Upon firing up the game, we’re once again shooing around on an outdoor court at a college campus, this time with Kevin Love. Instead of changing banners, selecting your favourite school adds the appropriate logo to the hoodie that Love is wearing, though his blue and yellow UCLA shorts remain the same.
Much as NCAA March Madness 08 felt like a midway point between NBA Live 07 and NBA Live 08, and a more polished version of the former, NCAA Basketball 09 feels like a cross between NBA Live 08 and NBA Live 09. That made it a noticeable jump from the year before. Indeed, as soon as you start shooting around with Kevin Love, you can feel a pleasing difference in player movement, as well as notice the better dunk and layup animations that were transitioned into more smoothly. The game featured Quick Strike Ankle Breakers as in NBA Live 09, as well as the Pick & Roll Control. The Lockdown Stick was replaced by a Defensive Assist, though.
The big new game mechanic in NCAA Basketball 09 was Tempo. Each team had a preferred tempo of play: up-tempo, balanced, and half-court. The goal was to control a game’s tempo by playing to a team’s preferred pace. Teams that preferred up-tempo play needed to run as much as possible, while half-court teams needed to take their time setting things up, and balanced teams needed to mix it up doing both. A meter displayed the current tempo. When a team controlled the tempo, they received a boost to their shooting percentages, and were better at making stops. When the tempo didn’t favour a team, they would miss more shots and be more prone to turnovers.
Before each game, it was possible to make quick strategy adjustments and choose three areas of focus, in order to help set the tempo. Similar to the Intensity mechanic in previous games, it’s something that could’ve worked in the NBA titles as well, but it definitely captures the spirit and style of the college game. There were no mini-games this time around, but you could still continue to shoot around on the college court – which featured a very detailed campus in the background – before heading to the arena. Speaking of which, NCAA Basketball 09 included the ability to select your arena for Play Now games independent of your choice of team, similar to NBA Live.
I find the tempo mechanic to be very interesting, especially if you’re playing with a half-court team. The tendency in basketball games is to put up points on the board in a hurry, and at every opportunity. With a half-court team, however, you really need to work the clock to the best of your ability. Pop-ups with advice from the coach let you know how you’re doing and offer tips to get the pace under control, thereby keeping the game at your speed to boost your players’ performance. Tempo could also be changed on the fly using the D-Pad, so if you wanted to slow things down or speed things up and not be penalised, you didn’t have to stick with a team’s default tempo.
Although the gameplay in NCAA Basketball 09 is unsurprisingly dated now, it holds up a lot better than NCAA March Madness 08. As I noted, both the movement and animations were improved, so while the game shows its age, it looks and feels much better than its predecessor. Adopting some of the controls used in NBA Live 09 also introduced some familiarity, while retaining its own mechanics such as tempo control, a hard foul button, and even employing distractions during free throws. Speaking of free throws, NCAA Basketball 09 used the same meter on the backboard approach as NBA Live 09, which was less cumbersome than moving the right stick down and up.
A lot of people hold NCAA Basketball 10 in high regard, much as they do NBA Live 10, and for good reason on both counts. However, NCAA Basketball 09 was a good game in its own right. Much like its NBA counterpart, I think it’s a little overlooked. I wouldn’t place it on the same level as NBA Live 09, which I would say has superior animations, movement, and graphics. With that being said, NCAA Basketball 09 is a lot closer to NBA Live 09 than NCAA March Madness 08 is to NBA Live 08. It still had some clunky moments, but was a marked improvement and borrowed some great ideas from NBA Live 09, suitably adapting them for the college style of play.
Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale returned to provide commentary, and the presentation was once again very commendable. The MEI Marching Band provided an expanded soundtrack of collegiate-style music, and as in March Madness 08, it was a better fit for the game’s vibe and atmosphere than licensing commercial tracks would have been. NCAA Basketball 09 also included the ability to save screenshots and replays, as in NBA Live 09. Other new features included Blue Ribbon scouting reports for all current and classic teams, and a School Overview which provided a breakdown of each school’s location, prestige ranking, arena (and its history), and accomplishments.
As usual, the roster management functions included the ability to create players as well as edit existing ones, and modify lineups. Playbooks could be renamed as in NCAA March Madness 08, as could coaches. Player names could also still be auto-generated if you didn’t want to edit everyone manually, or stick with the default jersey numbers instead of names. Statistical records and award winners could be found in the Hall of Fame as before, though they were still only updated as of 2007. No real names could be used, so “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s record of 44.5 ppg is instead attributed to “LSU#70”, while the 2007 National Player of the Year is “SF#35”, not Kevin Durant.
Dynasty mode returned, and now prompted gamers to create their own coach and build a career from the ground up by only being able to control a school that offered a job. Otherwise, you could elect to control any school you wished, and disable the ability to be fired if you preferred. Once again, there were recruiting objectives that are suggested by the Athletic Director, and recruiting from pipeline states is cheaper. There was no redshirting, budgeting, or NCAA rule violations this time around, but training camp, player awards, Top 25 Polls, and stats were all still available, along with roster and gameplan options. It was still a deep mode, but it was a step back.
There were also some familiar quirks navigating the Dynasty menus, such as backing out of menus and having to hit Start to bring them up again, and being able to back out to a shootaround if you hit Circle/B too many times. The interface was very similar to NCAA March Madness 08, but it’s functional. Apart from Dynasty, a couple of new modes were added. In addition to being able to hold an NCAA Tournament whenever you like, new pre-season tournaments were available. Joining the Maui Invitational and NIT Season Tip-Off were the Old Spice Classic, Anaheim Classic, and Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournaments, which also appeared in Dynasty.
Online leagues were removed, but a new head-to-head online mode called Rival Challenge took its place. In that mode, you competed with gamers controlling the rivals and conference foes of your selected team, in order to win bragging rights. The other new mode in NCAA Basketball 09 was the Tournament of Legends. It was a 64-team tournament utilising the classic teams, such as the 1982 North Carolina Tar Heels, 1979 Michigan State Spartans, 1995 UCLA Bruins, and 2007 Florida Gators. In other words, a retro tournament mode, though you could customise the brackets and even utilise the current teams if you wanted to mix the new in with the old.
It was a cool feature, but it drew even more attention to the classic teams and the fact that while they didn’t use any real names, it was clear which players the placeholders were standing in for. It was further evidence in Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA and EA Sports, and it basically ensured that NCAA Basketball 09 was the last game to include classic college teams. Those classic teams were also available in Play Now, but the All-Time teams were removed. We wouldn’t see All-Time College teams officially included in a game until NBA 2K17 (albeit as paid DLC), and only for the teams that were playable in MyCAREER, featuring currently licensed alumni.
On the subject of DLC, there was a March Madness edition of NCAA Basketball 09, a digital-only release that was exclusive to Xbox Live at a cost of 1200 Microsoft Points. The DLC featured the NCAA Tournament with 65 teams, and was updated to reflect the real brackets once the actual tournament was underway. Gamers who had purchased the full version of NCAA Basketball 09 didn’t miss out on anything, as it was basically a stripped-down version featuring the NCAA tournament. The DLC also featured ratings updates, but the community had already created several rosters with updated players. USB drives with custom rosters are still being sold on eBay.
What else can I say about NCAA Basketball 09? It’s fun to play, even today. Again, it’s not quite on the same level as NBA Live 09, but it’s respectably close, and the tempo mechanic definitely makes things interesting. Dynasty lost a couple of features, but it remains a deep mode that aims to replicate the college game the same way its counterpart in Live did for the NBA. It’s just a shame that EA pressed their luck with the classic teams, but they at least put them to good use. Like NBA Live 09, NCAA Basketball 09 is arguably overlooked because its successor was very highly regarded, but both deserve to be remembered as very good releases in their own right.