As a handicapper, the NCAA is no Clem Florio. Given the authority, it would let a mule into the Kentucky Derby if the beast won a match race in the Big Eight Conference. All the problems with his season's basketball tournament are not its fault, though, and the biggest could have been eliminated with one pencil and one eraser.

You move Marquette from the Mideast Region to the East Region and you have as equitable a tournament as any impartial witness could expect, a decend blend of geography and strength but with more than enough silliness to make the NCAA rework its rules before another tournament takes place.

This year the NCAA managed to reward losing. It gave the second-place team in the Big Ten, Indiana, a better chance to make the final-four round in St. Louis than the Big Ten Champion, Michigan State. It was forced to invite a team that proved itself unworthy the entire season, Missouri, because its member conferences would rather make money than see the best team win the national championship.

Once upon a time John Wooden never allowed this sort of fuss to fester. He simply built such immensely talented teams that whoever else the NCAA invited or wherever everyone played hardly mattered. Grab the money, a glance at the UCLA cheerleaders and try to keep from being trampled by all those Gail Lew Waltons.

With the Wizard retired, most of college hoops is created equal - and maneuvering as much as possible to get the easiest route to the final four. It says here there are about 16 teams in the country better than everyone else and, with the possible exception of Detroit and Texas, all of them have a chance at the national championship.

Only the omission of Detroit stirs any emotion here, and anyone who wants to argue that Indiana ought not to be in the tournament can take every other team in the East Region and I will back Bobby Knight's squad with a mythical unit of my own choosing.

If records were the only basis for the NCAA filling its show, last year's champion, seven-time loser Marquette would not have been invited. Who knew about Idaho State last year - before it beat UCLA?

This is a national tournament, after all, and a certain number of Furmans, Fullerton States, Western Kentuckys and Miamis of Ohio must be tolerated. With 32 teams, that bit of sectionalism is in fact welcome.

At the moment, the Kentucky faithful is irritated at its Wildcats being matched against Florida State in the first round. And the Kansas crazies are upset about having to meet the now-human UCLA Bruins in the opening round ot t- of the West Region.

Throw 'em one of Tark's towels. If a team gets invited to the playoffs, it better be prepared to play somebody good. And the Florida State match might be just enough to inspire Joe Hall's team to play to its capacity.

Marquette is a special case. Most of the year it has been judged among the best, four teams in the country by both wire-service polls. But the NCAA chose to fill the East Region with several come-latelies instead of giving a final-four team the best chance to get to the final four.

Still, geography must not be ignored, because students and fans who have supported teams the entire year should not be made to travel unnecessary distances to see them in the playoffs.

That is the problem one finds with nearly all arrangements based strictly on seeding. A friend and colleague, Don Newbery, has devised a wonderfully fair bracket for this season's tournament - and in less time than the NCAA's "two arduous days."

But it has Fullerton State playing in the East, Penn in the Mideast and St. Bonaventure and Furman in the West. Those teams are perfectly capable of losing in their natural regions, with as many fans as possible on hand.

The NCAA basketball committee chairman, Wayne Duke, should slap a technical on himself for saying: "We fell we've come up with the best 32 teams available." With the present NCAA rules, that is patently impossible.

Wisely, the NCAA expanded its tournament to 32 teams three years ago, allowing for deserving runners-up in assorted conferences to play. Then the conferences took advantage of the switch by copying the Atlantic Coast Conference's special flair for greed - a postseason turnament.

The reasoning: the regular-season champ will make the playoffs even if it loses in the tournament. But that allows an under-500 team, such as Missouri to slip into the tournament - and keeps a 24-3 team, such as Detroit, out.

The lure of these ACC-like affairs is that they decide the league champion. Well, the NCAA tournament can do nicely without "champions" such as Missouri - and the rules should be altered to keep them out.

Also, the selection committee should get some Florio-like mind to bring more order to its early round matchups - and give itself some room to maneuver by allowing teams from the same conference to meet in the national semifinals instead of the finals.

Duke said the NCAA was trying to give Marquette the advantage of beginning defense of its championship in its home region. Even the Marquette coach, Hank Raymonds, does not appreciate such favors.