Maryland basketball Coach Lefty Driesell yesterday launched a letter-writing campaign urging basketball coaches in the nation's major conferences to boycott the NCAA tournament.

"I've been hot about this before and I'm hot again," Driesell told The Washington Post.

His wrath is focused on the NCAA rule that limits a conference to only two representatives in this year's 40-team, national championship tournament.

Driesell drafted letters yesterday to coaches and athletic directors of every conference with a team in the top 20, and also some other conferences, urging them to join him in threatening to boycott the tournament if the two-team limit is not lifted.

The two-team rule has been in effect since the 1976 tournament, and no conference has ever sent three teams into the NCAA tournament. Prior to 1976, only one school per conference played in the NCAA tournament, which then had a field of 26 teams. The field was expanded to 32 then and 40 for this year's event.

Under the current format, 23 conference champions receive automatic bids and 17 other teams are chosen at large from among the nation's independents and conference nonchampions.

Driesell admitted that his team's 67-66 upset of top-ranked Notre Dame Saturday rekindled his ire, which he expressed last summer to various officials.

"Notre Dame is talking like they already got a berth locked up and they probably have," said Driesell. "We just beat them but we have a very tough road ahead to get in. We've been gypped out of it before -- in (John) Lucas' senior year when we went 22-6 and didn't go. And we might be gypped out of it again this year."

"If Notre Dame feels assured of a bid right now, we should be, too. Right now the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) has four or maybe five teams that should go. We're being stepped on. We (the stronger conferences) are the ones who make the tournament and we're the ones suffering.

"I'd like to see us (the stronger conferences) boycott the darn thing and hold our own tournament, tell the NCAA they can have their tournament with independents and the Sun Belt team and the Southland team and the Ivy League. That would shake them up.

"The structure is totally unfair. It completely favors the weak conferences and the independents. I think the 40 best teams should go. I don't think any conference, including ours, should get an automatic bid if they don't have a team that's good enough.

"I might get laughed at. But you know that if they told football only two teams from a conference could go to bowls, the coaches would be up in arms. Nobody in basketball has enough guts to do anything. The only way to get anything changed is to threaten."

Driesell said that he would not hold his team out of the NCAA tournament unless others held their teams out as well.

The tournament format this year has been expanded to 40 teams, mostly because 54 Division I teams won 20 or more games last year. Eighteen of them were not invited to either the NCAA or the National Invitation Tournament, the other postseason affair. The Sun Belt and Southland conferences have been added to the automatic bid list this year.

Other conferences whose champion is assured of a berth are the ACC, Big Eight, Big Sky, Big Ten, East Coast, Eastern Athletic Association, Ivy. Metro Seven, Mid-American, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, Pacific Coast Athletic Association, Pacific-10, Southeast, Southern, Southwest, West Coast, Western and the three regional champions of th 39 eligible teams of the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

The remaining 17 at-large berths will be voted on by a nine-man selection committee.

Another rule change alters the format so that two teams from one conference cannot meet for the national title. That occurred in 1976 when Indiana and Michigan, both from the Big Ten, played in the championship game. The tournament committee was swamped with complaints about the advantage it allegedly gave the Big Ten in national exposure and the resulting benefit in recruiting.

Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke, chairman of the NCAA selection committee, said he sympathized with Driesell's point of view and admitted that the 40 best teams are not selected. But he disapproved of Driesell's tactics.

"There's no question that the Big Ten and the ACC right now have more overall depth and strength than other conferences," said Duke. "Speaking from the Big Ten's point of view, I thought it was great for the conference when Indiana and Michigan met for the championship. I think some of Lefty's thoughts are valid.

"On the other hand, speaking for the selection committee, we have a responsibility to all of college basketball. Being custodian for all of college basketball runs contrary, I admit, to taking the 40 best teams in the country."

Asked specifically if the tournament sacrifices an opportunity to have the 40 best teams in favor of "showcasing" a wide representation of college basketball, Duke replied, "That is right.

"We must also take into account that the format Lefty favors would make strong conferences stronger and weak conferences weaker. There may be a time down the road when the 40 best teams are chosen. But you must remember, if we went to an 85-team format, the 86th team would feel they should have been in it."

Duke described himself as a "conference man," but said he would not support Driesell's boycott.

"Absolutely not," he said. "Lefty's approach is inappropriate. There are channels he can go through -- Carl James, his athletic director; Bob James, his conference commissioner, or Willis Casey, the athletic director of North Carolina State, who is on our selection committee.

New selection committee member Russ Potts, the athletic director at Southern Methodist University and former assistant athletic director at Maryland, said he agreed. "Ultimately we should work to get the best 40 and I think that the member schools are moving that way."

Asked if he would support Driesell's boycott, Potts laughed and replied, "I love him dearly, but I disagree with that. I don't think it will get off the ground."