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McGRATH: College basketball is atrocious; entertainment value is nil

Wisconscoach Bo Ryan his Badgers symbolize whBig Ten basketball has become: lethargic offensively challenged. | Jamie Squire~Getty Images

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and his Badgers symbolize what Big Ten basketball has become: lethargic and offensively challenged. | Jamie Squire~Getty Images

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Updated: April 25, 2013 7:23AM

‘Monster” fails to describe the gravity-defying dunk Denver’s JaVale McGee threw down on the Bulls on Monday night at the United Center.

My young companions from Leo High School came out of their seats as the basket standard reverberated. I nearly joined them, and I felt guilty. I like NBA basketball, but I’ve always been a college guy in terms of true appreciation of the game.

Yet after watching three days of the Big Ten tournament in the same building, as well as a dozen regular-season games at various Midwest venues and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, I’m drawn toward a sad conclusion. College basketball is losing me. It’s failing as entertainment because it’s not very good. Some sinister force is squeezing the life out of it. You’ll see Brian Urlacher downing beers with Phil Emery and Marc Trestman before you’ll see a soaring slam like JaVale McGee’s in a college game. Most student-athlete shooters would struggle to compete in H-O-R-S-E.

This George Karl-coached Nuggets team is intriguing. Since acceding to Carmelo Anthony’s desire to play Broadway, the Nuggets have assembled a nine-deep squad that can run and shoot and play — Wilson Chandler’s 35 points and Andre Miller’s 13 assists did more harm to the Bulls than McGee’s dunk.

Denver’s winning streak reached 13 the next night with a 10-point taming of the loaded Thunder in Oklahoma City. The halftime score was 66-65. When Ohio State beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten tournament title, the final score was 50-43. Which brand of ball would you rather watch? Or play, if you were an emerging talent?

Illinois’ victory over Minnesota came on a Brandon Paul buzzer-beater — high drama. The 39-plus minutes that preceded it were typical of a 51-49 wrestling match — clanked shots, misfired passes, offensive inertia.

That quarterfinal exemplified the tournament. Twice as many games featured scores in the 50s (four) as in the 80s (two).

The best conference in the country? At what, demolition derby?

Wisconsin symbolizes what Big Ten basketball has become. Players come and go, so the coach is the star of the program. Bo Ryan’s Badgers are going to squeeze every possession into sawdust, bore their opponents into lethargy and take advantage of the inevitable mistakes. No denying it works. No interest in watching it.

It didn’t work against an Ole Miss team whose athleticism and elan belied a No. 12 seed in the tournament. Wisconsin clomped its way to a first-round departure.

OSU’s Deshaun Thomas was the Big Ten scoring leader at 19.5 points per game, followed by Michigan Player of the Year Trey Burke at 19.2. Only four other players from the league’s 12 teams averaged as many as 15 points.

Fifteen points? Rick Mount would have 15 before he got off the bus. Cazzie Russell would have 15 before he taped his ankles. Downtown Freddie Brown would get you 15 from the first-level concourse.

This is not to single out the Big Ten. North Carolina rivals Duke as the gold standard in college basketball. When the fabled Tar Heels are no better than a No. 8 seed in an unimposing tournament field, you know it’s bad all over. And speaking of fabled . . . and bad . . . how ’bout that UCLA effort against middling Minnesota?

The argument that one-and-done players are robbing the college game of its talent doesn’t hold water. Maybe in the first-class cabin, but how many one-and-done visitors has St. Mary’s had, and when have you seen a worse exhibition of shooting than the Gaels staged in the first half Thursday against Memphis? Colorado for 34 minutes against Illinois? Maybe. Those Buffs would have trouble winning a noon-hour, bald-spot Y league.

The AAU system is a more credible culprit. Kids spend the spring and summer traveling to tournaments and playing games rather than working on skills, such as shooting, passing and dribbling. Hence the overall caliber of play has declined alarmingly. Name one college “star” with a decent mid-range game. It’s all ESPN highlight stuff — dunks and three-pointers, with spotty execution of both.

And God help the team that tries to establish a low-post presence. What’s accepted as interior defense in college would earn a perp jail time on the street.

This rant is not the bitter residue of a tattered bracket (though it’s so tattered as to lack all value — thanks, Georgetown). It’s a mournful ode to a bygone era that was loved and is missed.

Maybe there’s hope in that college-level CYO DePaul and Marquette are joining, though I’m not sure I’ve ever known a Catholic guy who could dunk.

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