March 11: Hugh Durham and Jim Valvano are desperate.

Durham's Georgia team is entering the Southeastern Conference tournament at 18-9, at least two victories shy of an at-large invitation to the NCAA field, and one loss away from the NIT.

Valvano's North Carolina State team is 17-10 going into the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, probably one defeat away from the NIT.

These coaches were worried more about final than final four.

But on the evening of March 11, Georgia won the first of three straight one-sided games to earn its first NCAA berth. Automatic bid. Third seeding in the East regional.

That same day, N.C. State beat Wake Forest by a point. Over the next two days came seismic upsets, over North Carolina in overtime and a de-Ralphing of Virginia in the tournament final. Automatic bid. Wolfpack to the West regional.

Now, after marching through March, two teams that weren't given half a chance to win their conference tournaments are half of the final four. Georgia, with six straight victories, is 24-9. N.C. State, after seven straight, is 24-10.

Saturday afternoon, in Albuquerque, they play each other in an NCAA tournament semifinal, with the winner to meet Houston or Louisville Monday night for the national championship.

"I guess the Destiny Kids are going to collide," said Durham, referring to two teams that are desperate no more.

"This is a dream, to play in the final four," said Valvano.

There are a lot of questions about these two teams: namely, how have they made fools out of the college basketball know-it-alls?

With their ascension, the Wolfpack and the Bulldogs have made a mockery out of college basketball's two indicators: conference standings and national rankings.

Each finished a measly fourth in its conference during the regular season. Neither was ranked in the top 20 most of the year. Only after winning their conference tournaments were N.C. State ranked 16th and Georgia 18th in the final Associated Press poll.

Then on to the NCAA tournament, where the unexpected teams beat the expecteds. It started in the early rounds. Lamar beat Alabama by 23 points in the first round. Utah beat UCLA in the second round.

With each year comes more unexpecteds advancing through the field. But this is the first time two unexpecteds have been in the same final four in the last 10 years. The only surprise semifinalists in that time have been Syracuse in 1975, North Carolina-Charlotte in 1977 and Penn in 1979.

That's three unexpecteds out of 40 semifinalists.

This year, it's two of four.

Are Georgia and N.C. State beginning a trend in college basketball? Will the NCAA tournament ever again have a predictable final four?

"There's talent everywhere, it's proven with this," said Bobby Cremins, whose Georgia Tech team was the only common opponent to Georgia and N.C. State this season. "When people speak of talented teams, no, they don't say N.C. State and Georgia right away. But you think Georgia and N.C. State don't have talent?"

Dale Brown, coach of Louisiana State, says, "I may be embellishing the number somewhat. But I think there are about 100 teams in this country that are outstanding."

Or as Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell says, "It's so unpredictable now, it's screwy. Not necessarily the best team wins."

Just ask North Carolina or Virginia, which were ranked in the top 10 all season and were favored to win their regional finals. But Georgia, after beating Virginia Commonwealth and top-seeded St. John's, produced the tournament's biggest upset by routing the defending national champion Tar Heels Sunday, 82-77.

Out west, N.C. State beat Pepperdine in overtime and Nevada-Las Vegas in double overtime, then beat Utah before defeating Virginia for the second time in two weeks, 63-62.

"I used to think postseason conference tournaments hurt everybody," Driesell said. "But N.C. State had the best incentive among the teams in our conference to win the ACC tournament. Georgia was in the same boat. They felt they had to win to get in the NCAA tournament.

"They both won and got some momentum that carried them right to the final four," Driesell said. "They never came down off the high. It's a funny game. You get hot, you go."

Or, as Cremins says, "We call it 'getting on a roll.' "

Driesell's Terrapins lost to Georgia in the NIT last March and defeated N.C. State twice this year. That second loss was the Wolfpack's last to date, a 67-58 defeat March 3 in Raleigh.

Driesell has been saying the last three weeks that N.C. State, with Dereck Whittenburg having recovered from a broken foot, is one of the top 10 teams in the nation.

"I said that because Whittenburg, (Sydney) Lowe and Thurl Bailey have started together and played every game together for four years," Driesell said. "I don't think there are many other teams in the tournament who have that situation."

Said Cremins: "N.C. State has the best back court in the final four. I love those two guards (Whittenburg and Lowe). At first, I looked at the bracketing and thought, 'Well, they'll sneak up on one team and then lose to Virginia.' But the guards have shown how good they can be."

So has Georgia.

"Georgia didn't just come out of anyplace," said LSU's Brown, whose Tigers beat the Bulldogs twice this season. "Terry Fair, James Banks and Vern Fleming were all high school all-Americas. Yes, no one could have predicted that Georgia could have been in the final four now. Yet, there was a time, you have to remember, when they led the SEC."

Brown, whose team made it to the final four two years ago, said college basketball may be moving toward parity and warned that, soon enough, the unexpecteds won't be unexpecteds at all.

Of North Carolina State and Georgia, he said, "The way I understand it, wasn't Cinderella an overnight thing? Golly, these teams have been doing it for the last three weeks."