What Is the Difference between Professional and College Basketball?

Basketball hoop and ball

At first glance, it may seem that there are not any differences between college (NCAA) basketball and professional basketball (NBA). The court looks the same, both have hoops positioned at the same height, and the whole game generally seems identical.

However, there are some important differences in the games played at college level and those played in the NBA – some obvious and some very subtle.

Talent Gap

College basketball features players who are at the very start of their basketball careers and some who may not even eventually choose to pursue a professional career. Unlike the NCAA, the NBA is a fully professional league, which features the finest basketball players in the world. The standard of basketball in the NCAA is high, but it is at its very best in the NBA.

The Shot Clock

The shot clock in basketball is used to increase the game’s pace, as well as its scoring levels, and the offensive team must attempt a shot before the shot clock expires. In the NCAA, the shot clock is 35 seconds, whilst in the NBA it is just 24. It’s no surprise, therefore, that NBA games generally have much higher score lines. Often these are in the 80s, 90s and 100s compared to the NCAA whose games are played at a slightly less frantic pace. This results in college games usually being lower scoring.


You’ll also find differences in fouls between the NBA and college basketball. In the NBA, a player is allowed six personal fouls before 'fouling out', which is when the player is disqualified from participating in the remainder of the match. In NCAA basketball games, players are allowed just five.

Dimensions and Distances

Despite the dimensions of the court, the distance between the backboard and foul line and the height of the baskets being the same in the NBA and college basketball, there are a couple of fundamental differences. Take a close look and you will find that the three-pointer line is slightly nearer to the basket in the college version of the game (19”9 rather than 23”9 in the NBA). You’ll also find differences in the width of the lane, also known as the "paint", with the college game’s lane being 12 feet compared 16 feet in the NBA.


Defense is an area where there are major differences between college basketball and the NBA. In the NBA, the subject of defense is complicated and the league in general is a man-to-man league with zone defense only being played occasionally due to the complicated rules that surround it. In college basketball, however, there are no such complications and you can see a whole host of varieties of zone defense with some becoming trademarks of certain teams.


There is a clear difference between college basketball and the NBA when it comes down to resolving possession disputes. In the NBA, all such situations are resolved by a jump ball. In college basketball, however, possession simply alternates between teams. A possession arrow is positioned on the table that the scorer sits at indicating who will get the ball next in such a situation.

Makeup of a Match

One of the most obvious differences when you watch a college basketball game is that it is played in two 20-minute halves rather than four twelve-minute quarters in the NBA. College basketball plays in halves because that is how basketball was originally meant to be played and it was the NBA that deviated from it.

With the regards to the NBA playing in quarters – Sam Goldaper recounts the early days of the NBA, saying they chose to play four 12-minute quarters "so as to bring an evening’s entertainment up to the two-hour period owners felt the ticket buyers expected". Of course, in the TV advertising world, it also enables more commercial adverts revenue to be generated.

The Season

The number of games a college basketball team plays differs considerably to the number played by teams in the NBA. College teams play between 30 and 35 games over a season that lasts just over four months, whereas NBA teams cram 82 games into just six months.

Despite the differences between the NBA and college basketball, overall the two games are very similar. This is borne out by the number of professional NBA players who have come through the NCAA system.