What We Liked
Teaming with Options: You want to play as any Division I school you can think of? You got it. NCAA 09 loaded up over 300 D-I schools for your perusal. (Oral Roberts fans, rejoice!) The game's not just overflowing with teams. From the pre-season to the post-season NIT, the Old Spice Classic, and more, there are now five tourneys to pick from in addition to the season-closing 65-team bracket.
Pace Yourself: The new Set the Tempo feature adds a cool dimension to strategizing. Heading into each game you can choose what style of play you'd like to install. Pick an up-tempo attack and feed off of traps and presses for easy baskets. Select a balanced attack and alternate between attacking or walking it up the court. For the Rick Carlisle gamers out there, you can also select a half court game plan, which basically means never run and always try to use 34.5 seconds on the shot clock.
Big Men On Campus: Once again, EA delivers a dynamic set of post game moves. Dump the ball in to your big man and go to town. Button tapping nets up-and-unders and pump fakes; trigger buttons unleash drop steps; and the right directional stick offers up an assortment of spin moves. Just don't lean on the turbo button on the blocks, you'll rack up a charge almost every time.
Simply the Best: Enjoy a brush with greatness in the ESPN Classic Tournament of Legends. Pick and choose from 64 of the greatest college hoops teams of all-time. Climb the Pyramid of Success with Wooden's dominant UCLA teams, grab a towel and start gnawing with the '91 Runnin' Rebels, or grab 2008 hero Mario Chalmers and see how last year's champs hold up against other title winners. The shooting and speed here for both your players and the computer AI is a step above what you'll find anywhere else in the game.
Rivalry Renewed: Online trash-talking should reach new levels this year with the Rival Challenge. Instead of hunting endlessly for a formidable foe online, simply let the game search out your team's long-time rivals and conference opponents. Settling for just two regular season Duke-UNC clashes a year is a thing of the past.
Fan Nation: The crowd gets our vote for sixth man of the year. As the game unfolds, enjoy chants and reactionary cheering. In crunch time, watch as the fans' body movements mirror the action on the court, including the first few rows using body English to influence long-range shots.
Check out NCAA 09 in action:
What We'd Change
D-Fenseless: Winning a championship starts on the defensive end. Unless you're playing NCAA 09. The game lacks a way to ratchet up the one-on-one defensive pressure. Instead you're given the option to hold down the L2 button and watch all five players defend under CPU control. Needless to say, this isn't the most attractive option with less than 30 seconds left in a tie game, as the CPU can blow an assignment and you won't have time to recover.
All the Wrong Moves: Like EA's pro hoops game, the player movements in NCAA 09 are still awkward. If you get the ball out in front of everyone, expect to be caught before you reach the basket -- there's absolutely no speed burst on the break, even when you hit the turbo button. Also, dribble penetration leads to some of the most awkward layup animations we've seen. Nobody uses the backboard, there are very few dunks, and many of the shots wind up looking like one-foot jumpers.
Backseat Coaching: If you used to play hoops and you miss getting screamed at by your coach throughout the game, you're in luck! The new Real-Time Coaching Feedback system in place here offers up advice while the action is flying up and down the court, but most of it is in relation to the tempo system you're running. In fact, it plays the tempo a little too close to the vest. For instance, if you're playing a half court game and you decide to get out on the break to take advantage of a steal, expect to be castigated on the trot back to the defensive end for playing too fast. With more constructive criticism, this could be a very helpful feature. As it is now, it seems more like nagging.
Squawking Heads: NCAA 09 completely missed the boat on the announcing crew here. The recycled clips out of Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale are consistently one step behind the action, often praising an offensive play as your setting up your defense. Then there's the occasional Erin Andrews sideline report, where all we get is a digitized headshot of the Queen of the Sports Blogosphere as she reports on halftime adjustments. (We can only imagine how upset this will make Extra Mustard's Jimmy Traina.)
With 2K bowing out of the college hoops war this year, NCAA 09 is the only game available to tide you over until March Madness. Luckily it provides a solid product. While some of the gameplay animations could be improved, the depth is unparalleled and the new tempo style offer up limitless ways to go through a season.
-- Reviewed by Paul Ulane, SI.com