SO HERE THE Utes are, in their first Final Four appearance since giant reptiles walked the earth, and wouldn't you know it, Keith Van Horn isn't around to enjoy it.

Don't be mistaken; the NBA is great. In what other job do the employees average $2 million a year and still get $82 a day for meals? Van Horn is crying all over the leather seats of his Lexus. Still, now that he's in the NBA, he has to wonder what it would have been like. The fever, the exhilaration, the unbridled joy that only comes in amateur athletics.And he has to be wondering privately: "Didn't they need me?"

And: "What am I, dog food?"

Van Horn couldn't be blamed if he feels a little like Herbert Hoover. From most indications, Hoover was a decent president. He looked good in a business suit. He had a reputation as a humanitarian. He saw the nation through part of the Great Depression, which couldn't have been much fun. Although he wasn't the guy to get the country out of its mess, it didn't break up into feudal kingdoms, either. All in all, he was an underappreciated guy.

Then he leaves office and what happens? Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrives with his New Deal. The next thing you know, Hoover is a footnote in history. Roosevelt was elected to four terms and people planned their schedules around his fireside radio chats, just like I plan my day around "The Simpsons."

FDR got to be one of the all-time greats, and Hoover got a vacuum cleaner named after him.

Strange as it is that the Utes are in the Final Four, the year after the best player in school history leaves, it isn't unprecedented. It can happen. Sometimes, for some reason, teams just keep going, forgetting entirely that they weren't supposed to be there.

Utah isn't the only school in this year's Final Four to have lost a star and still come back stronger than ever. Stanford had a fine season last year, making it to the third round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Utah in the Sweet Sixteen. But Brevin Knight, the team's best player, went on to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Instead of moping around, Stanford took off like it had just found the on-ramp.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of winning big after losing a star player was the Cincinnati Bearcats of the early 1960s. Behind Oscar Robertson, they made it to the Final Four in 1960. But after that, he was gone to a Hall of Fame NBA career. In his absence, the Bearcats went on to win consecutive national titles and finish second a third season. Robertson must have been feeling like a house plant.

Another case in point was the 1983 Virginia Cavaliers. Led by 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, the Cavs could never get to the Final Four. But the year after he left, Virginia got there. The gimpy-kneed king was gone, long live the king.

Of course, some teams thrive after their stars have left for a simple reason: There's plenty more where that came from. UCLA won 10 championships in 12 years because the Bruins always got the best prep recruits in the country. Lew Alcindor gave way to Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks, who gave way to Bill Walton, etc. Along the same line is Kentucky, which lost Ron Mercer off last year's team but is back in the Final Four again. The Wildcats lost Tony Delk and Walter McCarty after Kentucky won the 1996 NCAA title, but were back again to finish second last year.

"Kentucky doesn't rebuild, it reloads. With those kinds of teams they just keep getting good players," said Jazz president Frank Layden. "It's a different ballgame the way the Kentuckys do it. They start right off the top with the best kids."

Utah is another matter. Van Horn built the winning tradition, while Andre Miller, Michael Doleac and Hanno Mottola improved significantly. "I said this during the year, that the improvement of Miller has been greater than the loss of Van Horn. Andre made up the difference," said Layden.

He laughed, "Also let me say that this year they didn't play Kentucky."

BYU coach Steve Cleveland agrees that Van Horn established the winning tradition, which younger players built on. "They had been there before," he said. "It's not like it was virgin territory. They knew what to do."

So maybe this will be the Utes' last chance. Doleac graduates and Miller could turn pro. If so, it could be devastating. But maybe not. If there's one thing history has shown, it's that in certain cases life goes on, even if the big stars don't.