After much consideration, I have concluded that the 2010 NCAA champion will be ... nobody.
Duke can't win because this is basically the same Duke team we've seen for the last few years (long on shooters and hunger, short on size and athleticism) and we know that team can't win. Butler can't win because this is not a movie. Michigan State can't win because the Spartans are missing their most important player, point guard Kalin Lucas. And West Virginia can't win because the Mountaineers are missing their point guard, Darryl "Truck" Bryant, and even though Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins says Bryant might play, he surely won't be 100 percent, and besides, how can you trust a point guard named Truck?
This may be the least talented Final Four in many years. It might not produce a single NBA lottery pick this summer; the last time a Final Four failed to send a player into the next lottery was 1986, and the lottery was smaller then. In fact, it is plausible that this Final Four won't send a player into any lottery -- in 2010, 2011, 2012 or beyond.
Yet, precisely because of the lack of talent, this is the most lovable Final Four in years. If this NCAA tournament has taught us anything, it's that heart, desire, teamwork and coaching all matter. It's not just a talent parade.
We need this once in a while, don't we? Being a sports fan requires a certain suspension of disbelief. We must pretend that teams can win the World Series with a low payroll and those NFL linemen can't possibly be on steroids and these athletes aren't just hired guns and of the thousands of significant sporting events every year, not one of them is fixed.
And we want to believe heart matters. Guts matter. It's not just a question of which slimy coach magically landed the most gifted recruits.
On a related note: Kentucky lost.
I mean this: If the Wildcats had won the title, I think it would have been a watershed moment for the sport, like when we discovered baseball players had used performance-enhancing drugs. People would still watch the sport, but they wouldn't see it in quite the same way. The idea of universally loathed Kentucky coach John Calipari leaving Memphis, essentially stealing Memphis' recruits and winning the national title with extremely talented, one-and-done freshmen in his first year in Lexington ... it would go against everything people want to believe about March Madness.
(By the way,I recently wrote a column trying to explain what makes Calipari tick, and why, of all the ethically challenged coaches in this sport, he is the most reviled. Is he really the worst of the worst? Or just the most successful of the worst? A few readers interpreted this to mean I was DEFENDING Calipari, which was never my intention ... but upon re-reading the piece, I see why they thought that. I was not clear enough. Writer failure. My point was that, whether he is the worst of the rogues, or just the best at being a rogue, he is still a rogue. So let me state for the record: I believe Calipari breaks rules that haven't even been created yet, and if I were a school president for a hundred years, overseeing a thousand sports, I would never hire John Calipari.)
Kansas, the favorite, would have been more palatable than Kentucky, but even those Jayhawks would have won mostly on talent. This Final Four is a throwback to the 1980s, when North Carolina State and Villanova stunned the sports world by winning national titles.
We're heading for one of the most stunning champions of the last 20 years.
Duke was an almost universally pooh-poohed No. 1 seed. Before the tournament started, the general feeling seemed to be that Duke got a 1 seed on senior leadership, a weak ACC and corrupt officiating. (That's always the perception with Duke.)
Most people thought Michigan State, the preseason No. 2 team in the country, was not good as it should have been, and when I say "most people" I mean "Tom Izzo." West Virginia, the No. 2 in the East, looked like a typical Bob Huggins team: tough, defensive-minded, finished by the second weekend.
And nobody picked Butler to win it all because, well, nobody picks Butler to win it all. Now the Bulldogs get to play a Final Four at home, in the shadow of their own arena, where the original Hoosiers story unfolded. It is the kind of story everybody wants to believe in, and maybe that's the best thing about this NCAA tournament: you can believe in the things you want to believe in again.