Held back another year.
Basketball, like most sports, is full of rules. Some of these are good, like the one that says that you have to dribble the ball when moving, but some are bad, like the one that says punching is illegal. Come on. Let the boys play.
But probably my favorite is the three-second violation. This prevents offensive players from camping out under the basket, unmoving, just waiting for the pass or the rebound to come to them. The rule promotes movement, strategy, and innovation; otherwise the game would simply be reduced to a height competition.
You might say that EA's NCAA March Madness 06 gets caught beneath the basket for longer than three seconds. In fact, EA has spent over three years in the lane, making minor adjustments to an old basketball engine, yet still winning since they're simply taller than everyone else. Perhaps that's why the virtual officials hardly ever call three-second violations - EA is trying to keep smartass reviewers from making this unfavorable analogy.
In large part, this game is the same as last year's March Madness, which was, as you might recall, the same game as the previous year's March Madness. On offense, your players shoot, pass, pro hop, or dunk. On defense, your players steal, take charges, jump, or intentionally foul. The right-thumbstick is still a crossover control on offense, and by tapping the shoot button twice you'll still change your shot in midair. It's not a bad formula, but its hot streak is starting to cool off like an asthmatic point guard.
At least its one significant addition is good. By holding down R3 on defense, your defender "locks down" on whomever he is defending. From there, pressing the right or left trigger will respectively go for an aggressive steal or draw a charge. You can also try to anticipate the ball carrier's moves, thereby remaining locked down and potentially forcing him into traps, out of bounds, or into five-second violations (which the game does call). The lockdown stick deserves praise because it beefs up defensive play, which is really what makes college basketball different from the pros. In college, there is defense. In the pros, there are legal defense teams protecting highly-paid felons. Or the Pistons.
There are other positive tweaks, like the way players don't slide around as much as in previous incarnations. Also, the ability to call plays using the D-pad (the Floor General control device) has been extended to the defense. It's not quite as useful as on offense, though; I've never seen a team go from a half-court man defense to a one-three-one zone to a full-court trap all in one possession. Still, they could if they wanted to, and now so can you.
A less effective addition is the "senior leader" feature. Apparently, when your senior leader is hot, the rest of the team gets a boost. But this doesn't seem to make much of a difference, since you can't "see" anything like a leadership gauge and so have no idea whether your senior leader is having an effect at all.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game is left untouched. Even with new tweaks to the physics, CPU players regularly steps out of bounds without penalty. On fast breaks, your teammates still have a tendency to camp out on the wings instead of driving to the hoop. And perhaps worst of all, the computer still does not recognize when it is being stuffed. When the opponent A.I. runs its set offense - say, setting a baseline screen to open up the three-pointer - it does not matter whether the player shooting is a third-string center with no arms from Wichita Polytechnic or whether you have two giant shot-blockers camped out on both of his waving stumps: the shot will go in. Apparently, the computer gives a massive boost when a screen has been successfully set without any regard for switches on defense.
The game modes - Dynasty, Rivalry, Multiplayer, Mascot game and Campus Challenge -are back. Then again, they never left, and after so much playing time they're starting to smell like your high-school locker room.
Dynasty mode is, indubitably, the meat of the single-player game. In addition to playing games and driving your team towards the NCAA Tournament, you will be responsible for recruiting, divvying up your budget, and beating your players with bamboo lashes when they miss practice. At least, you wish you could. Like last year, your players have an aptitude for bad behavior, and when they miss practice, cheat on an exam, or display a foul attitude, you must suspend them or face NCAA sanctions. These suspensions are again doled out in "discipline points," which make no sense at all—at the end of the season you could be forced to start a child murderer just because you ran out of discipline points.
Even more infuriating is that no matter how often or how severely you discipline your players, the NCAA will still come after you. My second-string forward was late for practice once and I suspended him for five games, yet the NCAA still sent me a nasty note threatening to take away scholarships. Listen EA, either ditch this discipline thing next year or give the coaches bamboo lashes and hot pokers—torture will get these kids in line for sure.
Recruiting seems to be as easy as it is cumbersome. Cycling through recruits, reading their scouting reports, and trying to remember which game you invited them to come see is a bulky affair. I just went after the six top recruits interested in Cal and got them all. In 2007 I started an all-freshman team, even while boosting the overall "grade" of Cal basketball from a B to an A+. Recruiting in March Madness 06 is not a smooth process, but it does make your team unrealistically better.
Taking the game online has become more of a standard feature than a luxury option, and is performed here with the same perfunctory grace. There are very few (read: none) frequent online players, so don't expect a welcoming family of college basketball fans.
The aging graphics sure won't lure in any new blood. Crowd members are still pancake-flat 2D sprites that bounce up and down on their pixel-thin feet. When you sub in a new player, he magically morphs into the player he's replacing like a lanky Agent Smith. The players themselves look pretty good, but when they dribble straight, they have a tendency to switch their dribbling hand awkwardly several times.
The play-by-play and color commentary by Dickie V and Brad Nessler are bearable, but the music is really, really bad. Instead of the typical EA licensed hip-hop track thing, this game treats listeners to the sounds of the Georgia State Marching Band jerkily tonguing and spit-valving their way through seventies funk songs. The "original" song for the game - "EA Sports is in the game, Dawg" - demands a total and unconditional written apology from the GSU marching band. Why written? Because those of us who have heard it have already gouged out our eardrums using whatever narrow object was closest at hand.
The PS2 controller, due to its slender features, makes a better ear gouge than the Xbox controller, but that's the only appreciable difference between the two. Load times are quicker on the Xbox, especially in Dynasty mode, and the Xbox version looks considerably brighter and crisper as well. However, the PS2 version contains a throwback "retro" mode that lets you play the first EA college basketball game. Hey, along with your redundant game we'll throw in an obsolete one! Have fun!
College basketball may be more fundamentally sound and authentic than the pro game, but you wouldn't know it from March Madness 06. Though it sees a nice addition in the lockdown stick, the game stays stubbornly true to its already paid-for code, repeating the fouls of its past and failing to graduate to the next level.