By their presence here at the Final Four, the basketball teams from Duke, Nevada-Las Vegas, North Carolina and Kansas all ostensibly still have a shot at being crowned this season's national champion.

But the general feeling is that Nevada-Vegas will be to this tournament what Kevin Costner was to the Academy Awards; that if the Runnin' Rebels don't win, the NCAA ought to conduct an investigation. With a senior-dominated lineup virtually identical to the one that won the title last year, only better, UNLV is a 4-to-1 favorite against the field.Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are given roughly the same odds as double zero on a roulette wheel. A feeling verbalized by Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who, when asked if he'd rather play UNLV or Kansas in the semifinals, said, "Who would you rather fight in a war, Iraq or Russia?"

Nonetheless, Duke will meet UNLV and North Carolina will meet Kansas in Saturday's games that will determine Monday night's championship game pairing. That means that if UNLV's run to the title is to be stalled here in the Hoosier state, Duke, the same school that lost to the Rebs in last year's NCAA championship game by an all-time record 30 points, gets to take the first shot.

It's really rather remarkable that Duke is in the Final Four again, period. For one thing, 296 schools started out in October trying to get here. For another thing, it's the Blue Devils' fourth straight Final Four appearance.

They've got one player, senior forward Greg Koubek, who has gone to the Final Four every year he's been in school. He thinks going to the Final Four is a regular college spring ritual, like going to Ft. Lauderdale. When he plays in Saturday's game he will become the only person in history to play in four Final Fours.

Koubek also thinks that part of the Final Four is losing and going home. Duke lost in the semifinal round his freshman and sophomore seasons, and in the final to Nevada-Vegas last year. For Duke, getting there has been all the fun.

Still, four straight Final Fours, even if you do tend to turn into the the Denver Broncos once you get there, is nothing to scoff at. Neither is Duke's 22-1 NCAA tournament record in regional play the last six years.

"At least we're consistently excellent," said Duke center Christian Laettner.

As opposed to national champions.

All of which leads to two points. One, how many times can you get back on the horse before you figure out what you were doing wrong? And Two, is Duke due or what?

If the law of averages has any pride at all, Nevada-Vegas - favored over Duke by 91/2 points - could be in a lot more trouble Saturday afternoon than anyone thinks.

Duke has Laettner, who is shooting 65.8 percent from the field in the NCAA tournament; it has point guard Bobby Hurley, who has just four turnovers in 139 tournament minutes, which is like walking into Kuwait from the Saudi Arabia side and not running into any explosives; it has a 9-player rotation that includes medium-range shooting ace Billy McCaffrey, whose 17 field goals off the bench in the tournament exceeds all by itself the 16 bench-scored field goals managed by the entire UNLV team to date in the tournament; it has Krzyzewski, holed up in his Indianapolis hotel room for five days working on a game plan; it has the Iron Dukes booster club, far and away the most obnoxious fans in college basketball; and it has the same thing Sitting Bull had - revenge, namely.

UNLV has answered every challenge this year, but it hasn't yet run into the team it annihilated in last year's final.

It's obvious Duke wasn't so embarrassed it didn't want to come back for more. These are the Blue Devils, so this must be the Final Four. Either they get it right this time, or they have people asking them all summer if John Elway is their first cousin.

Figure Duke by three over UNLV in one semifinal, and North Carolina by one over Kansas in the other semifinal - setting up a Monday night Duke-UNC championship final that will divide Tobacco Road right down the middle and create a true dilemma for every non-Tar Heel/Blue Devil college basketball fan in America - how can they both lose?

Figure Duke for the title, too. If you can beat UNLV, you can beat Dean Smith.