We first thought about it (the NCAA final) right before our game with Maryland Feb. 18," said Jim Spanarkel. The assistant coaches set up a ladder-type chart with all the final-four combinations. Day after day we'd stare at it, but back then it was just a fantasy.

"Now it's reality."

This fantasy-to-reality, in fact, took more than three years - and Spanarkel can draw the most satisfaction of any Duke player.He was the cornerstone of Bill Foster's rebuilding program, a fine player who chose Duke at a time when mediocrity almost seemed a fantasy.

Spanarkel had none of the trailblazer instincts that led Mark Manges to Maryland or Ron Lee to Oregon. He choose Duke because there was more than hoops, a chance to also play baseball and "because I knew some people at Duke and got along with them real well."

Like center Mike Gminski and forward Gene Banks, who followed in successive years, Spanarkel committed himself to Duke early, to avoid the rush of late-season pitchmen. The intensity that produces equal effort against Johns Hopkins and North Carolina is hidden behind an off-the-court face that seems almost sleepy at times.

"But I do enjoy the recognition," he said, "because that means you've accomplished something. And it's always that much better when you've been through the hard times.

"Notre Dame had the spotlight Saturday, but Duke stole it from them. We're using this (underdog image) as a guiding force, to show people we can play. And when we get our transition game going we can beat anyone."

There are about 1,400 coaches here for the Duke-Kennedy final tonight and every one of them dreams of having a player like Spanarkel, intelligent and fluid, whose dominance often is reflected in box-score numbers for someone else.

In the final seconds of the 90-86 victory over Notre Dame Saturday, the Irish had a chance to tie at 88 when the ball left Duck Williams' hand from 23 feet. It bounced off the rim. Amid the clutter of arms, Spanarkel realized he could not grab the rebound himself, but he could tip the ball to John Harrell.

Harrell controlled it and sank the free throws that assured victory; Spanarkel made it possible. He is best able to explain the evolution of Duke basketball.

"Last year we knew that Mike and I had to get 25 (points) each to win," he said. "We knew that even though nobody brought it up, that one of us had to have a great game and the other a near great game to win.

"Now there are others to pick us up."

There is Bob Bender to throw alley-oop passes that Banks manages to catch in traffic and turn into either off-the-board layups or wicked dunks. And Harrell to make sure the ball get to the scorers.

"Beating Maryland at Maryland was one of the Keys," Spanarkel said, "because of our road record in the past (27 straight ACC defeats)." But Duke followed that by losing by 24 to North Carolina State in Raleigh.

"I don't know whether there's such a thing as biorythms or not," he said. "But if there is, we all had lows at the same time. It was a shock, but we knew we played awful. Usually, a loss lasts 24 hours with me, but Mike and I were laughing as soon as the game was over, wondering why anyone bothered to stay for the second half."

At Duke, Spanarkel has lost 20 pounds after his freshman year and improved his free-throw efficiency from 69 percent to 86 percent in three years.

He is given neither to outrageous statements nor the sort of on-the-court flair that draws attention to himself. Duke began a campaign that ballyhooed the team as "Spanarkel objected. Now the theme is "Billy and the Kids."

Spanarkel's competitive fire was evident at least twice before his special season began, with two remarks of Lefty Driesell's the-sun-don't-shine-on-the-same-dog-all-the-time variety.

After North Carolina beat Duke at Durham last year he muttered: "Our day is coming." After he and Carolina's Mike O'Koren, a teammate in high school, posed for a picture just before the season began, he said: "I know we can beat those guys this year."

Yesterday he said, "It's not been our philosophy to worry about pressure. We may have a little cockiness, but we're certainly not overconfident. It's confidence to the point we knew we're good."

At last.