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Why college basketball is great

For a moment, I forgot. Or maybe I just didn't care.

As Keith Appling rose above Melsahn Basabe's outstretched arm, I paused and stared. It all unfolded in front of my seat at the Big Ten tournament at Chicago's United Center on Friday.

Appling's body seemed to glide beyond its natural limits. He cocked his arm back -- ball in hand -- and dunked in such a ferocious manner that I lost it. I admit it. I was no longer on press row. I was at home on my couch. I grabbed another reporter, I yelled, I re-enacted the maneuver. It was all spontaneous, and I eventually gathered myself.

But that's what a great play in a great game will do to a man.

That quarterfinal matchup between Michigan State and Iowa was an example of the substantive competition that has tethered the faithful to the sport for decades. A desperate Iowa squad outplayed Michigan State -- outmuscled it, too -- for 75 percent of that afternoon encounter.

The Hawkeyes needed that win to maintain their slim chances of reaching the NCAA tournament. And then, the Spartans did what the Spartans do. A late rally turned the game for Michigan State. Iowa couldn't connect on a pair of 3-pointers in the final seconds, so the Spartans escaped with a win.

The naysayers would argue that I hadn't just witnessed good basketball. And in some ways, they'd be right.

Michigan State shot below 40 percent overall, including 3-for-15 from the 3-point line. Iowa committed 17 turnovers. Neither team cracked 60 points.

So what.

Two teams battling to the final buzzer in a single-elimination matchup that one squad had to win to keep its NCAA tourney dreams alive? I'll take it.

College basketball has offered similar thrillers in the 2012-13 season, even though the haters say the sky is falling on the game.

I say, settle down.

Remember the five-overtime affair between Louisville and Notre Dame? Remember Michigan and Indiana playing so tight in Ann Arbor that a last-second shot that rolled off the rim ultimately decided the hierarchy in the Big Ten? Remember Ryan Kelly dropping 36 points after missing nearly two months with a foot injury? Remember Iowa State-Kansas in overtime, and Iowa State-Kansas in overtime, Part II? Remember Nate Wolters and South Dakota State riding a bus across America (literally) because of weather problems and then upsetting New Mexico at The Pit?

The fun began long before Selection Sunday. Sorry if you've arrived late and missed it.

Throughout the season, my TV, tablet and laptop are frequently streaming college basketball games -- usually simultaneously. Not just the Top 25, either. Iowa State's experience and 3-point shooting could mess up your bracket. Villanova, too. I don't trust Ole Miss. Be careful when picking Montana as a sleeper because top scorer Mathias Ward is out for the season with a foot injury.

I'm in the mix every day. So I know the product still shines. And teams play defense, a lost art among the pros.

The bulk of college basketball's personnel pool includes athletes with similar skill levels. And that fuels parity, but it also presents a platform for inconsistent performances by players who are still learning.

The volume (340-plus squads) makes it easy for critics to point to the single matchups or styles or systems that aren't always TV friendly when they're assessing the sport.

That, however, is what separates the NBA from college basketball. A team full of gutsy, disciplined athletes can overcome a squad that features a multitude of pro prospects -- see Vandy over Kentucky in the SEC tournament -- based on the variation that this level allows.

Does it lead to sloppy basketball sometimes? Yep. But teams that get stamped with that tag often play smart basketball, too. See Wisconsin.

I know the game has issues. I'm not so overzealous about it that I ignore the flaws. You think I'm at home watching replays of Georgetown (37) versus Tennessee (36) on Nov. 30? Nope.

Offensive output has regressed. That's a problem because scoring is the goal. And that's what folks want -- and expect -- to see when they watch any game. The influx of cash has also changed things. Schools invest more (practice facilities, new arenas, additional coaches, bigger paychecks for head coaches), so they desire more in a shorter timetable. Some coaches, under pressure to justify and preserve their salaries, are willing to play slow and ugly if it raises the likelihood of victory. Players can't fly the way they'd like to fly as a result.

But it's not just coaches. We have only three positions now: point guards, wings and forwards. Specialization is dead. The big man wants to play like a small man. The point guard wants to shoot. The wing wants to run the team. Players have more skills these days, but they're not more skilled because they spend too much time trying to emulate the talented individuals at the next level. And if they're restricted, they'll transfer.

The NBA refuses to create a true minor league, so the NCAA fills the gap via the one-and-done rule. That affects continuity and chemistry, and it limits a coach's opportunity to build a program. Everything is season-by-season now because it's nearly impossible for a high-major team to keep a good squad together for two or three seasons.

Overall, however, college basketball is still worthy of praise, especially when you realize that only a small percentage of its participants are future pros. Kansas State is not supposed to execute like the New York Knicks. The Wildcats are, however, playing to their potential as amateurs.

There's star power, too. Ben McLemore, Doug McDermott, Shane Larkin, Trey Burke, Shabazz Muhammad and Victor Oladipo are studs.

You want pretty basketball? Watch Indiana's perimeter passing as it starts with Jordan Hulls whipping the ball to Christian Watford, who finds Cody Zeller inside before the latter kicks it back out to Hulls on the arc.

You want impressive basketball? You ever witnessed Kansas in transition? You want your money's worth? Louisville won't let you down.

Don't judge this game unless you know this game and follow this game. And my beef with some of the critics is that they're often folks who don't really watch college basketball. They tend to focus on the worst moments and ignore the highlights. Blanket -- misinformed -- statements ensue. Plus, they usually prefer the NBA, as if that brand of basketball is Teflon.

Sure, the Miami Heat are a great team and LeBron James is the greatest player in the world. But the Charlotte 49ers might be better than the Charlotte Bobcats (I'm joking … maybe). Michael Jordan's team has won 14 out of 66 games this season.

I love the NBA. But its formula is simple. The team with the best players usually wins. That's why just eight teams have won titles since 1990. Kobe Bryant and Jordan secured 11 of the NBA championships in that stretch. Kevin Durant (30 points in a loss to USC) couldn't will Texas past the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2007, his first and only season in college basketball.

Winning is more complicated at this level.

This game has it all. There's diversity, there's uncertainty, there's competitiveness, there's passion and there's sloppiness.

I'll accept everything that comes with it because March Madness will prove (again) that college basketball is unrivaled in its overall ability to captivate the general public's attention. This is a great game with many challenges.

Enjoy the Big Dance.

Doubters, enjoy the Bobcats.