For a day off from school, the Speedway High School band will perform anywhere. Which is why it could be found huddled at Gate 5 of the airport here today, trombone slides snapping dangerously close to flutists's ears.

This was 11 a.m. and an Ozark Air Lines plane had braked just beyond the glass that separated it from the tuba section, so everyone began a march that made the Iowa basketball team feel both at home and mildly uncomfortable.

A short time later, the band regrouped at another gate to greet another NCAA final-four team, although Lousiville's players were welcomed with an unfamiliar march.

"We tried to learn fight songs -- and Louisville's was too tough," a trumpet player explained.

IF THE REST OF THE SPORTING WORLD REGARDS THIS NCAA championship with rampant apathy, almost anyone within several hundred miles of here is aglow with anticipation. For the first time in memory, these NCAAs can be appreciated only by basketball junkies.

There is no Magic. There are birds -- Cardinals and Hawks -- but no Bird. Once we called the perennial team from the west LewCLA. Now it should be called UCLA.Except for Joe Barry Griffith, the tournament is cluttered with no names and no-names and no-name teams that could only to be successful in the hoop-draft Midwest.

Who else would gladly offer $150 to a scalper for one ticket to Saturday's semifinals and Monday's championship game? Who else would give a hoot about Lute?

The casual fan looks at this final four and sees three teams -- Purdue, Iowa and UCLA -- that have become familiar, if hardly satisfied, with losing. Neither team was even a runnerup in its conference.

And the one team with a decent record -- 31-3 Louisville -- is the greatest collection of undisciplined hot dogs since John Williamson trotted onto a court alone. Historically, the Doctors of Dunk find a way to impale themselves during important surgery.

Still, as the band was greeting Iowa, a young man was carefully coloring a small sign. To a veteran of these scenes, it seemed innovative. Surely, it was one of the few signs that not only pleaded for tickets but also said: "PLEASE."

"It's worked for me hitchhiking in several languages," said Charles Shacklette.

Shacklette has seen a good deal of Europe since graduation from Louisville a year ago -- and when he realized the Cardinals were two victories from the national championship he left Heidelberg as swiftly as Darrell Griffith on a breakaway dunk.

"New York Wednesday, here today," he said. "Or was it New York Tuesday? Jet lag. All I know is I've got to be here, though the fact that I also was running out of money helped, too. A guy over there" -- he pointed toward the far end of the baggage-claim area -- "wanted $150 for a ticket.

"I hear they're going for as much as $800."

That defied belief.

"I'll go to $100," he said, and continued to emphasize the "PLEASE" on his sign.

The practices today attracted several fans, coaches and insiders drawn here because they can see past the Joe Barry Carrolls and the Griffiths, the slums and shams and to the essence of this tournament.

They see Kevin Boyle and tingle, knowing that this year -- and perhaps forever -- the NCAA tournament will not feature stars so much as workaholic overachievers such as this 105-pound "power" forward.

Kevin Boyle and his team, Iowa, are the present and future of the NCAA tournament, the sort of riff-raff that becomes more appealing the more they are seen. They are an acquired taste, wholesome and healthy for anyone accustomed to the usual diet of semiamatuer basketball.

But the format that allowed them to be here at all leaves a nasty taste in the mouth of one of the sport's legends. For one, John Wooden believes the NCAA's decision to almost double its tournament entries -- to 48 teams -- smells.

"I don't like it at all," said Wooden, sitting midway up in the arena during the practices, alone until one fan spied him. After that, he signed autographs and gave interviews for more than an hour.

"I think this should be a tournament of champions. The winner should be the champion of champions (as Wooden's peerless UCLA treams were for so many years). You take something away from the (regular) season with this format.

"Of course, we all know it was done for commercial reasons."

And The Wizard has survived long enough to have deep, personal affection for each of the four teams. The UCLA connection is obvious, as are his ties, as an alumnus, with Purdue. Mildly astute fans also realize Louisville Coach Denny Crum is a former Wooden player and aide.

But Iowa?

"I was stationed there during '42 and '43," he said, "in Iowa preflight."

From a view higher than anyone in his sport, Wooden looked at the four teams practice and equated parts of them with his special UCLA teams. Wooden won with teams as small and as quick as Louisville, with a giant superior to Purdue's Carroll, with Iowa's discipline and UCLA's tenacity.

He believes Louisville ought to win; he also realizes how a Carroll can make ordinary-shooting guards suddenly unerring.

"The man draws the defense toward him," Wooden preached, "and players who can't hit from 20 feet often can from 15 feet."