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.