BOSTON - Not all Sweet 16 appearances are created equal, the Daily News has learned.

Last March, this same group of Wildcats also made it this far, after almost making the NIT. They got there as a 12 seed, overcame an 18-point second-half deficit in their first game and played a 13 seed in the second. Then they ran into Kansas and reality set in. The next weekend, the Jayhawks were cutting down even more nets. And Nova Nation already was planning for a return trip to the third round. Or, dare we say, beyond.

Well, here we are again. Except this time it was pretty much expected, since the Wildcats (28-7) are a 3 seed. Especially after the Selection Committee sent them all the way to South Philadelphia to start their journey. Now, the next thing standing in their way is Duke (30-6), the No. 2 seed in the East Region.

They will play tonight at TD Banknorth Garden. The winner will get either top seed Pittsburgh (30-4) or No. 4 Xavier (27-7) in Saturday's Elite Eight. The Wildcats got that far 3 years ago. The Blue Devils have been to 10 Final Fours since Villanova's magical run in 1985. But they last got there in 2004. That's the longest 0-for since Mike Krzyzewski first did so in 1986.

Understandably, both teams are thinking big things. Soon, only one will still have a next step to think about.

A year ago, not many gave the Wildcats very much of a shot. Now, they're absolutely a live play.

"We're not just happy to be here," said one of their four seniors, starting forward Dwayne Anderson. "We definitely belong. We want to keep pushing. We don't want this to end.

"We want to keep it going, as long as possible."

They were rookies in 2006 when the top-seeded Wildcats beat Boston College in overtime.

"The first time meant a lot," Anderson went on. "Each time you go back, it means even more. And for a lot of us, this is our last time. Some teams plateau out. We just keep progressing, each and every time we take the court.

"Yesterday we actually had our best practice. And this is March. We know what we have to do, to have another game. It's like we've been brainwashed. We don't know any other way. Duke will be ready for us. It's up to us to match their approach."

The Wildcats are coming off perhaps their best effort yet, a 20-point thumping of UCLA. That, after they came back from 14 down in the closing 19 minutes against American. Both were at the Wachovia Center, where they had three games this season. Then again, Duke got to play twice in Greensboro, which is about an hour's drive from its campus.

"We're thinking of this as a road game," said junior guard Scottie Reynolds, who is nursing a sore left knee and right elbow, probably from the half-dozen or so times his body ends up on the floor most games. "We've played a lot of good teams on the road this year. That's the Big East. It's so tough, night in and night out. You learn to approach every one as an elimination game. By the time you get to the tournament you're used to that kind of feeling because you've developed those habits.

"Seeding is just a number by a name. That never really did anything for us. We approach every game as if we're the underdog. I think that helps us. We're not satisfied. We all have a common goal. And we think we can get better. That's the great thing about this team. We don't ever think we're too big to keep working at it."

On paper, it looks like two evenly matched teams that employ the same backcourt-oriented style. Duke's top player, junior guard Gerald Henderson, almost went to the Main Line.

Did we mention that this is the Blue Devils' first time in a regional semifinal since 2006?

It's the 11th meeting, but first in 9 years. Villanova and Duke have played four times in this tourney, but not since the 1978 Final Eight. The last of Villanova's three victories came in 1958.

For the first time, there will be four 2-3 games. This is maybe the most intriguing.

"It's kind of strange," Jay Wright noted. "You would think [we] would have [been] matched up more. But it's pretty cool. I think it adds to the game. I'd like to see [us] play more. We love how Duke plays . . .

"The fact that we were here last year was big. Guys like [Corey] Fisher and [Corey] Stokes and Antonio [Pena] got to experience it for the first time. Now they're more comfortable. They feel like they belong. So you can see that difference in how they handle it. The first time, you don't see everything."

By now the veterans have seen it all. They've set a record for any Villanova class, with 100 wins. They've tied a school record for regular-season wins, with 25. And the school record for single-season wins. About the only thing they haven't done is get to the last weekend. For the second straight year, they're halfway there. Only this time, people are taking them quite seriously.

"Honestly, last year we were still kind of wide-eyed," senior forward Dante Cunningham said. "This is business. We've done what we had to do, all year. We're supposed to be here. We're going to continue to be here."

Toto, it isn't Kansas anymore.

"There's a lot of drive here, that I really like," Wright said. "I don't have to create it. It comes from them.

"That's why I don't want it to end, for them. We love being together so much. You just want that one more next game."

This time, it sure sounds like a reasonable enough request. *