Once there were 48; now there are two.

After a first round of jokes, a second round of chokes and a third round of smokes, it is the consensus that, despite that total of 16 defeats inflicted this year upon North Carolina and Indiana, the best two college basketball teams in the nation will play for the NCAA title tonight at 8:23 (WRC-TV-4) at the Spectrum.

Neither North Carolina (29-7), a 78-65 seminfinal victor over ACC rival Virginia, nor Indiana (25-9), which conquered LSU, 67-49, is a stranger to the final. The Hoosiers are making their 11th NCAA appearance and have claimed three national crowns, the last here in 1976. Carolina has been to the final four seven time, six under Coach Dean Smith, but has never won the big one. Carolina lost in the 1977 final to Marquette, 67-59.

This game also brings together the two most talked-about college coaches in America, Carolina's Dean Smith and Indiana's Bob Knight. Both are brilliant strategists, superb motivators and controversial.

Knight, almost always the center of a storm, was the topic of conversation today after he was involved in a fracas with an LSU fan in a motel bar Saturday night. Knight, irate over being called an obscene name, said he grabbed the man and shoved him against the wall. For Knight, all in a day's work.

The season finally ends tonight and Knight said the team that wins will have to put together 40 full minutes.

"Neither team will be able to play band and win," Knight said. "It won't be one thing in particular, but if either plays poor defense, shoots poorly or gets beaten badly on the boards, they won't win."

The Hoosiers, who whipped their four previous NCAA foes by a total of 100 points, played perhaps their worst game of the tournament against LSU but still managed to win by 18 points. One reason is that they play the tenacious, hitch-up-your-shorts, clawing man-to-man defense that usually has opponents mumbling to themselves before the game is half over.

"Indiana plays tough defense and we know we'll have our work cut out for us," said North Carolina's 6-foot-6 all America forward, Al Wood, who scored a career-high and NCAA seminfinal-record 39 points against Virginia. s"They're very patient and like a slow tempo. We're flexible. We can play a half-court game but we prefer a faster pace."

Wood suffered a slightly separated left shoulder against Virginia but said he was fine.

North Carolina defeated Indiana 65-56, at Chapel Hill in December, but both coaches inside those clubs were shadows of their current teams.

"These are two different teams now," Smith said. "Indiana has settled on a lineup, playing tough defense and working well as a team. And Isiah Thomas is a great player. You can't underestimate (Ray) Tolbert or (Landon) Turner. Both are good rebounders and can score inside."

Carolina will buttress its claim that its front line of Wood, 6-9 James Worthy and 6-9 Sam Perkins is the best in the country if it can handle the 6-9 Tolbert, 6-10 Turner and 6-8 Ted Kitchel.

"The will be the key," said Worthy, who will probably be matched against Tolbert. "Their rebounding group is as good as any team we've faced. I know because I've played against them. I know how good they can be."

If the front-court folks play to a draw, Indiana can call on Thomas, the best point guard in college ball. The 6-1 smoothie scores, penetrates, plays defense and lifts the spirits of his teammates with his enthusiasm. Randy Wittman, a fine, 6-6 all-around player, is the other starter in the Hoosier back court.

Indiana has depth in 6-3 Jim Thomas, who plays well in relief when the other Thomas falls into foul trouble; 6-8 Steve Risley, and 6-9 Glen Grunwald.

Carolina starts reliable 6-2 Jimmy Black and 6-3 streak-shooter Mike Pepper at guard. The Tar Heels get additional height in the lineup by going to 6-7 guard Matt Doherty. Jim Braddock, another long-distance shooter, also sees much action at guard.

Carolina is also a very good defensive club, a master at disguising alignments. One minute, the Tar Heels are in a man-to-man, the next in a sagging, matchup zone. Knight insists he isn't concerned about the Tar Heels' constantly switching defenses.

"We'll just have to recognize them in a hurry," he said. "They play a lot of them and we just have to be patient and run our offense."

Virginia (28-4) and LSU (31-4), will play for third place at 5:15 p.m