HOUSTON - There is a part of me that would love to see Connecticut-Duke circa 1999 or even Memphis-Kansas circa 2008 in Monday's national championship game at Reliant Stadium.

There would be NBA players all over the court, recognizable stars, great teams playing highest-level games.

There is also part of me that loves that either Butler or Virginia Commonwealth will be playing for the 2011 national championship. College hoops has been a sport of, by and for the power leagues for so long that it is hard not to like the new order. And it really is a new order when Butler can make consecutive Final Fours.

The game did not really change when the best high school players went right to the NBA. The best of the rest still went to the power programs and they still dominated.

What changed everything is the one-and-done deal. When the NBA decided it would no longer draft players out of high school, the great high school player had no choice but to go to college. But they don't stay in college.

Imagine what this Final Four would look like if senior Derrick Rose were still at Memphis instead of a favorite to win the NBA's Most Valuable Player award. Or if senior Kevin Love were getting 20 points and 20 rebounds every night for UCLA. Or if senior Blake Griffin were still at Oklahoma, dunking on everybody and everything. Griffin was two-and-done, but he was in that same freshman class with Rose, Love, Michael Beasley (Kansas State) and O.J. Mayo (USC). Think Jacob Pullen and Beasley could have won a few NCAA games this season at K-State?

Imagine what the game would look like with those players. But the one-and-done deal almost forced them out to get their NBA clock started.

Players have been able to leave early for years, but that did not really change the balance of power. Even the great players didn't often leave after their freshman seasons. Now, they do.

If a very good player stays until his senior season, he is looked at as a failure. It is a sad commentary on our values, but that is the deal. Jimmer Fredette (BYU) and JaJuan Johnson (Purdue) were terrific seniors who will play in the NBA. But if they were going to be superstars, they would have been in the league years ago.

"It's changed greatly," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "In our sport, because I think kids have gone out early, all you have to do is go to the NBA today, grab a Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo, and what would Griffin be, a senior, to grab some of the kids in the NBA and maybe the establishment would still be the establishment . . . There's an opportunity for teams. I think that's good. I think it's healthy."

Calhoun is in his fourth Final Four with UConn, but he started at Northeastern. He has seen both sides of the street.

"We always felt the elite were the elite," Calhoun said. "Just to play them was great, not just to beat them. Now, everybody can beat everybody.

"I think it's good for the sport. I still believe the kid should be in for 3 years or go right from high school, but that's just my opinion. It's better for both games, for the NBA and college basketball. With the way it is now, it's kind of like the wild, wild West. May the best team win and it doesn't need to have pedigree attached to it."

George Mason (2006) made the Final Four the season before Greg Oden and Kevin Durant arrived in college basketball, almost certainly against their will, the first season of one-and-done.

I really think George Mason was an aberration. Remember, the Patriots got Wichita State in the Sweet 16. Their upset of UConn in the East Region championship game was monumental, but it was a quasi-home game played in Washington.

Butler, Butler and now VCU are not aberrations. There were no great teams in college basketball this season because there were no great players. They are all in the NBA already.

"I think the teams that play the best basketball in the tournament are the teams that have a chance to win the tournament," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "It doesn't matter where you're from or how big your football program is or how much money is in your athletic department. It's about a group of kids coming together . . .

"It's the wonderful thing about college basketball. Every year we get into the argument about football, what if Boise had a shot, what if TCU had a shot, whatever the case may be. There's no politics in this. There's a 40-minute basketball game. That's the beautiful thing about it."

Football has a better chance of having its best regular-season team play for a championship. But it also denies deserving teams any chance to play for a title.

Basketball does not always crown the best team, but it does give just about every deserving team a chance. (Expansion proponents would argue otherwise and VCU is a pretty good argument.)

Stevens might be young, but he has wisdom. As the man behind the breakthrough, he understands better than anyone what is at work here.

"The term parity is an interesting term in college basketball," Stevens said. "You're comparing two different things. You're comparing budgets and then you're comparing teams that are on the court.

"Only five guys play in basketball at a time. You may have 13 McDonald's All-Americans, but you can only play five at once. As deep as you are and everything else, you still have to play and be good with those five, and they have to play as a team."

Butler and VCU are the very essence of team. But it's also true that their bigger-named Final Four brethren are playing that way, too.

Kentucky has the McDonald's All-Americans. The Wildcats have really come together as a team in March. UConn has several highly recruited players. They are playing brilliantly together.

"We're Butler. We're going to be Butler. We're going to be as good as we can be," Stevens said. "But we're not trying to be somebody else. We want Butler to be unique. We want Butler to be something that people look at and say, 'I don't know what's going on, but it's special' . . . We're not where we are because of dollars spent on practice facilities and those type of things. We're where we are because we have unbelievable people. People are greater resources than any amount of dollars."

Maybe that's it. With the new order, it's no longer just about talent. It's about people. *

Send email to jerardd@phillynews.com.