In the crowded field of American sports, college basketball has achieved a unique position as the only major collegiate-level sport whose popularity has eclipsed that of its professional counterpart. Suffering from a major image crisis, a broken business model, dwindling attendance and accusations of corrupt officiating, the NBA is doing everything it can to avoid fading from public consciousness. But as the pros fear becoming the next NHL, the audience and media coverage surrounding Division I basketball continue to expand. March Madness, the NCAA’s annual tournament that decides the national championship, is now as culturally relevant as the Super Bowl and World Series. For many fans, the reason behind this gradual shift is simple: The NBA is mired in fundamentally poor basketball. While college players are nowhere near as developed as the pros, the NCAA offers a better product based on teamwork, good coaching and raw passion for the game.

Right from the start, 2K Sports’ College Hoops 2K8 is a successful embodiment of this “college aesthetic.” The game opens with a resounding drum line instead of the usual montage of awful pop music we see in sports games. Greg Gumbel and Clark Kellog give in-depth preseason analysis, just like on CBS. And playing at home provides a continuous audible barrage from screaming fans, complete with distinct cheers and chanted insults for visiting teams. This last bit even affects gameplay in the form of the “6th Man Advantage.” Play well over a long stretch to fill up the meter, and you’ll receive a bonus in shooting accuracy. This small boost won’t push you into NBA Jam territory, but it can still help enough to sustain momentum, much like how you’d see players feed off a crowd’s emotion in the real world. Despite the occasional uproar at inappropriate moments, the 6th Man Advantage is otherwise exhilarating and certain to please anyone who’s attended an actual game.

Channeling the player’s beloved alma mater would be meaningless if College Hoops felt like the average frat party gone wrong. Thankfully, 2K’s faithful implementation of collegiate spirit extends to the gameplay. Dribbling and ball handling are very refined and fluid, with different button combinations affecting any move you make in a smooth and intuitive fashion. Shooting also feels just right; fade-away jumpers in particular are a blast to perform and quite satisfying. These and other actions are aided by the outstanding player animations, which are still a major advantage 2K games have over their EA counterparts. While their life-like nature makes certain actions a tad sluggish by gaming standards, the system offers enough variety and versatility to keep the visuals fresh and rewarding.

Step off the court, and College Hoops presents an NCAA-like level of bureaucratic complexity. Instead of paperwork and red tape, however, you’ll need to sort through mountains of menus and text if you want to explore anything outside of Quick Game. Those unfamiliar with the College Hoops series will be likely overwhelmed by the obscene number of options available. The options menu alone is split into seven sub-menus, one of which has no less than eight customizable volume settings. The Creation Zone lets you tweak playbooks, players, chants, even entire schools. Think Washington State should move to Canada? Curious to see what Duke would look like in Florida’s colors? Wish every team had the same obnoxious mascot as Syracuse? You can do all this and more (much, much more). Most tweaks won’t show up on the court, but anyone who enjoys customization of any sort could find himself several hours in without having played a single game. This level of front end depth is borderline criminal.

2K offers two robust tournament experiences: sponsored Pontiac events, including the beloved NCAA Championship and individual conference tourneys, and their own charity event, the College Hoops Classic. Both modes offer the same level of customization found elsewhere, from seeding to the number of players allowed to participate. For those who enjoy basketball at the strategic level, Coach Mode lets you watch from the bench and make real-time decisions without worrying about execution. Legacy incorporates elements from every other mode and then some. After customizing each conference to your liking and creating a coach, you build a team from scratch and take them through an entire season. Recruitment is a game unto itself, and tracking additional details such as job security, assistant coaches and a player’s long-term health can be overwhelming. Still, this mode is ideal for hardcore fans that have the time and patience to learn it.

Alas, College Hoops is far from perfect. Aside from terrific animations, the graphics are generally average. Player models and skin textures look fine from the default birds-eye camera, but don’t always hold up when viewed up close. Models for coaches, cheerleaders and crowd members are noticeably inferior. The presentation is especially inconsistent on standard televisions, as 2K continues the Dead Rising tradition of making some text virtually unreadable at lower resolutions.

There are a few gameplay issues, as well. Passing-related turnovers occur a bit too often, and the four different passing options have no noticeable affect outside of looks. Lock-On Defense feels unbalanced; even the massive Greg Oden can keep pace with a Nate Robinson-esque point guard or forward. Speaking of names .. there aren’t any. Due to NCAA regulations, 2K cannot use any player’s name or exact physical likeness (exact being the key term; the man on the cover is still Oden, albeit slimmer and a good five years younger). This isn’t too big an issue since it’s obvious who’s who, provided you’re familiar enough with a team to figure it out on your own. You can even change the names yourself, although it won’t make Verne Lundquist referring to players by number any less comical.

Bottom Line: College Hoops 2K8 is by no means an ideal showpiece for next-gen hardware. It’s also unlikely to win over those who care little for basketball. But like the sport it simulates, the game manages to overcome its technical deficiencies with hard work and pure effort. Just as college players play for the love of the game, 2K Sports succeeds where others falter because they care. Even if you’re not a hardcore hoops fan, at least check it out.

Recommendation: Buy it.

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