This will be both the largest and most equitable NCAA basketball tournament.

There are more good teams capable of emerging as national champion March 26 than every before, and the NCAA basketball committee has taken steps this year to ensure that the heavyweights won't meet sooner than is absolutely necessary by seeding all of the teams.

The seedings will be based on the current strength of each team, not on its conference's NCAA tournament record, as before.

While many conferences are battling in their tournaments from now through Saturday to get to the NCAA, such independents as No. 2-ranked Notre Dame and No. 10 Marquette are standing by, waiting to see what happens. The Pacific-10 and the Big Ten are two of the major conferences that don't have season-ending tournaments. They let the regular-season results stand.

And going into tonight's games, both conference championships are undecided.

The Big Ten, whcih can present a good case that it is the strongest basketball conference in the nation this season, has three teams -- No. 4 Michigan State, No. 11 Iowa and No. 17 Ohio State -- tied for first place and No. 19 Purdue one game back.

Michigan State plays at Minnesota tonight and at Wisconsin Saturday and appears to be in the driver's seat.

Iowa hoss Michigan today and Northwestern Saturday. Ohio State is at Wisconsin today and at Purdue Saturday. The Boilermakers also host Indiana today.

If there is a tie for the championship, the team with the best record in head-to-head competition will be declared the champion. That favors Michigan State because the Spartans beat both Iowa and Ohio State twice and split their games with Purdue.

If the Spartans don't win the Big Ten, they are a cinch for an at-large NCAA berth.

UCLA has a one-game lead over Southern California in the PAC-10 with two games to play. The Bruins are at home tonight against California, while USC hosts Stanford. They switch opponents Saturday.

If Southern California and UCLA finsih in a tie, the Bruins would be the conference champion because they beat the Trojans twice this season.

In the Southeastern Conference, the first and second-place finishers in the regular season LSU and Tennessee, respectively, have byes all the way to Friday's tournament semifinals. The final is Saturday.

Texas and Arkansas tied for the Southwest Conference regular-season title and they, too, have byers into the semis.

The SWC tournament starts tonight at the Summit in Houston with Baylor playing House and Texas A&M playing Texas Tech.

Ninth-ranked Arkansas will play the A&M-Tech winner Friday while Texas takes on the Baylor-Houston survivor. The final will be Saturday afternoon.

Among the top independents hoping for at-large berths, 15th-ranked De-Paul plays Notre Dame Friday and 18th-ranked Detroit ended its regular season last night at Xavier, Hoio.

The NCAA is a 40-term tournament this year and 23 conferences automatically qualify one team each to the playoff. That leaves 17 places for independents and other conference teams. No conference gets more than two entries.

In conferences that have a tournament, the tournament champion goes to the NCAA and the NCAA selection committee can choose any other team from that conference, regardless of its record.

Ten teams go to each region and then are seeded one through 10. The first six seeds in each region have a first-round bye.

The NCAA also has left open an option on where it sends each team. In the past, for instance, the Big Ten winner had to go to the Mideast, the Pac-10 to the West and so on. No more.

The Pac-10 champion could be sent to the Midwest or the West and the Big Ten to the East or the Mideast, for example, as long as each team stays in the same half of the draw.

The 17 at-large teams can be placed in any region.

All of this has been done in the interest of balance, according to the basketball selection committee.

The NCAA also has made it impossible for two teams from the same conference to meet in the final. The rule now says that teams from the same conference can be in the same regional and must be put into the pairings so that they cal play each other no later than semifinals.

The field and draw will be announced Sunday. First-round play begins March 9.