Bobby Hurley, wretched and retching in last year's Final Four, is ready to show America what a healthy Hurley can do.

And the Duke Blue Devils, who have set standards for NCAA tournament excellence - and Final Four failure - are ready to show America's best team what they can do with a poised, prepared and peppy point guard."Last year Bobby wasn't there for us and that really hurt," Duke's Brian Davis said. "This year, he's always been there and he's very excited about having another chance against UNLV. He's a better player and he proved that (Sunday). Bobby had the best game of his career."

Hurley led Duke in points , rebounds (seven), assists (four) and steals (four) and committed only one turnover in 36 minutes in a 78-61 victory over St. John's for the Midwest Regional championship.

The sixth-ranked Blue Devils (30-7) are back in the Final Four for the fourth straight season, earning another shot at top-ranked and unbeaten UNLV - which embarrassed Duke 103-73 in last year's title game.

Hurley, then a flu-stricken freshman, scored only two points in that game. Now one of the nation's super sophomores, he's hoping to make UNLV sick.

"Last year, I was overwhelmed. I couldn't swallow much. I was taking medication that inflamed my stomach," Hurley said.

"I'm in much better shape this year. I'm not rundown. I took care of myself. I've been to the Final Four. Now I want to go out and win it."

Davis, one of Duke's leaders, said a victory over UNLV in Saturday's national semifinals in Indianapolis shouldn't be considered miraculous.

"We're hitting our peak," he said. "All we can ask for is a great performance out of ourselves. We can't ask for miracles and I don't think we need them. We can't ask Vegas to lie down and die for us. We have to go out and beat them."

Getting to Indianapolis was the easy part. The Blue Devils beat their four regional opponents by an average of 18.8 points. Their smallest margin of victory was 14 points.

Then, again, it always seems like getting to the Final Four is the easy part.

Duke is only the third team to make four straight Final Four appearances, joining UCLA (10 straight from 1967-76) and Cincinnati (five, 1959-63).

It will be the fifth Final Four trip in six years and ninth overall for Duke, which is 24-5 in the last six NCAA tournaments. But the Blue Devils are still seeking their first title, and no team has been there as many times without winning.

Davis and coach Mike Krzyzewski had an interesting exchange at Saturday's news conference, and it still applied after Sunday's rout of the Redmen.

Davis: "For me, (UNLV) was the toughest loss that I've ever had. It was the first time that I ever cried after a game."

Krzyzewski: "It was the first time I cried during a game. Think of the experience I had."

Davis: "I think it was positive in the sense that we know we'll never lose like that again."

Krzyzewski: "Well, you better not. I'll kill you."

Davis: "I think we learned a lot from that."

Krzyzewski: "Learned how to lose by 30 points, that's about all. It wasn't a growth experience."

As negative as that might have been, Sunday's crushing of St. John's was positive.

Duke took a 40-27 halftime lead with outstanding defensive play and on Hurley's 3-point shooting (4-for-5) and court leadership. And the Redmen never threatened. Duke is 28-0 when leading at halftime.

"We played them both last year and this year," said Lou Carnesecca, whose Redmen led most of the way before losing 76-72 in last year's second round. "They are better than last year. They are quicker.

"They've always been known for their defense, but they get you with their offense. They spread you out, they break you down, they get you one-on-one and they get you into foul trouble.

"I don't need to tell you that we didn't play very well. It was in no small measure that Duke contributed to that. It is no accident that in five of the last six years, they have gone to the Final Four. It is not by chance."

Carnesecca made no excuses - he even praised the referees - but he could have.

His point guard, Jason Buchanon, was hounded by Hurley both offensively and defensively and spent most of the first half on the bench after getting three quick fouls. Center Robert Werdann played only 12 minutes because of a pulled calf muscle. And leading scorer Malik Sealy missed six of nine shots and committed two turnovers in the first half.

"A couple of times we'd make a run at them but then would hurt ourselves with turnovers," said Sealy, who played well in the second half and finished with 19 points. "They moved the ball and had great pressure defense."

St. John's committed 26 turnovers and Duke set a regional final record with 17 steals.

And with Werdann out of the game, 6-foot-11 Christian Laettner dominated, scoring 19 points on 5-for-6 from the floor and 9-for-9 from the line. He also had five rebounds, four steals and three assists.

Greg Koubek will be the first player ever to compete in four straight Final Fours. (Fellow senior Clay Buckley was on the roster as a freshman but didn't play.)

So Koubek has had his share of Final Four frustration.

"It's kind of hard to think about the past three years and say you're making history," he said. "But we now have a chance to accomplish something no Duke team ever has - winning a national championship."


The Final Four

At the Hoosier Dome


Saturday, March 30

North Carolina (29-5) vs. Kansas (26-7), 3:30 p.m.

Duke (30-7) vs. UNLV (34-0), 30 minutes after comp. of first game.


Monday, April 1

Semifinal winners, 7:10 p.m.