Regardless of what John Wooden and many other traditionalists insist, the NCAA ought to expand its basketball tournament to the limit, throw open the doors and say -- to all 261 major-college teams -- "come join us."

The evidence from admitting more than conference champions and exceptional independents -- especially this year -- shows that the fifth-place team from one league can whip the first-place team from another.

But should the NCAA clutter its showplace with Wake Forest? Navy? Baltimore University? Baptist College of Charleston (S.C.), which followed a 2-26 season in 1979 with a 2-25?

Yes.

Readers who regularly digest thoughts sold here along with their coffee and danish might reasonably be puzzled by now, perhaps wondering if Dr. Frankenstein also performed a frontal lobotomy over the weekend in Indianapolis.

Is this idea coming from the same mind that gets angry at the NFL for introducing "wild card" into sport, that scolds the NBA and NHL for sending more teams into the playoffs than home packing after sinfully long seasons?

It is.

A champions-only playoff format does not destroy the credibility of every big-bucks sport. In fact, most of the reasons for believing every team ought to be included in the NCAA basketball tournament can be used to argue against an NCAA playoff for the football factories.

You'll have to chew a bit longer this morning.

Start with the high-protein notion that anything that is fair -- and that also can produce an honest champion while deflating a good deal of the win-at-all-cost pressure on coaches and players -- should be considered.

It is as clear as the bite in Al McGuire's wit that all of collegiate basketball is not equal, that the third-best team in the Big Ten frequently is superior to the Mid-American Conference champion and that the Big East runner-up could well whip every independent in the land.

That is why the NCAA was exactly right in allowing more than conference champions into the tournament four years ago. Lately, there is reason to believe every team in the Big Ten is better than a few conference champions.

But why leap from 48 teams to 261? Would you enter a mule in the Kentucky Derby? Or your local driver-education teacher in the Indy 500? Should a pond of frogs be on the same stage with the UCLA cheerleaders?

College basketball is special because it is the last time games can bring glory and still be fun. One of its goals, arguably more important than producing a national champion, should be to allow as many players as possible to end the last game of each season with a smile on their faces.

The fewer the teams in a tournament, the greater the frustration factor. Consider the ACC this year: Maryland is justifiably proud because it has the best regular-season record; Duke is aglow because it won the tournament that determines the championship; Clemson is happy because it advanced to the West Region final.

Without expansion, Hawkeye Whitney would have ended his career without the experience of an NCAA playoff game. Without expansion, the Big Ten might not have proof of how much better it really is in relation to other leagues. Without expansion, we might have gone a lifetime without learning there are other entertaining Lamars than Hedy.

We are suckers for sentiment. A season is worthwile if we can discover one Cinderella in sneakers, a UNC-Charlotte or Cal State-Fullerton, Or come to the unalterble conclusion that UCLA's cheerleaders are to halftime entertainment what Darrell Griffith is to jumpers.

Let's try the Nike glass slipper on every Division 1 foot. And if a Seton Hall beats a De Paul, well, probably De Paul was not as worthy of the national championship as everyone imagined.

The polls hardly are a sign of enlightened judgment.

This season, the fourth-best team in the Pac-10, UCLA, tugged at our hearts by beating a team ranked first in the polls most of the year, DePaul and a team ranked second part of the year, Ohio State, to make the championship game.

And it was beaten, properly enough, by a Louisville team considered among the elite before the season's first double dribble and which successfully fought through a wicked region.

"Life is just a series of tipoffs," the former Davidson coach, Dave Pritchett, once said. But this let-'em all-play idea would not lengthen college basketball one second.

With just five byes, a 256-team field could be whittled to 32 in a week, one Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday gorge. Most teams experience that pace frequently during the season. Only greed stretches the present 48-team NCAA playoffs to three weeks.

Significantly, the only coaches who seem fiercely committed to the champions-only system are the former ones, the Woodens using wooden logic that would put an even greater burden on an already perilous profession.

A man ought to get as many chances to keep his job as possible and a victory or two in NCAA play would keep countless meddlesome alumni satisfied who might otherwise search for a rope and a stout tree.

Fewer scholarships and greater access to excellent players have caused more teams to be more competitive inrecent years, although the teams that spend the most money and stretch academic standards the farthest still tend to win the most titles. But a Kentucky team thought to have a friction-free journey to the final four this year failed to win a regional semifinal on its home floor.

This is the best argument for not allowing a postseason major-college football tournament that would use the major-bowl structure as the first elimination round. There are too many Gator Bowl winners who might beat the Rose Bowl champ.

Nearly everyone who wants one team to be happy at the end of an already exhausting season preaches that the tournament need be no larger than four teams and could be completed in two weeks.

Nonsense.

To be reasonable fair, you might have to include 16 teams each year. Should anyone who calls himself an educator allow the college season to begin before the NFL season and to end after the Super Bowl?