In 1980, Louisville became the first team to win the NCAA Division I basketball championship with a freshman -- Rodney McCray -- in the starting lineup. In 1981, the most valuable player in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament was a freshman, Sam Perkins of North Carolina.

Freshmen became eligible for varsity play in 1972-73, and each year since, first-year players have played a more significant role. This season, more than ever, freshmen will have a crucial role in deciding the national champion.

Consider the teams seen as most likely to be in New Orleans final four weekend:

* North Carolina, almost everybody's No. 1, has two superb players returning in the front court in Perkins and James Worthy. But it is 6-foot-4 freshman Michael Jordan and four other highly rated first-year players who make the Tar Heels the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Conference.

* UCLA lacked an outstanding big man last season. This year, first-year Coach Larry Farmer has Stuart Gray, a 7-foot freshman, who will change all that and play a key role in the Bruins' drive to the Pacific-10 championship.

* Louisivelle had perhaps the best group of athletes in the country last year. But the Cardinals were vulnerable to the zone because they had no one who could shoot straight from outside 15 feet. Solution: Manuel Forrest, a 6-7 deadeye. A freshman.

* Wichita State, with forwards Cliff Levingston and Antoine Carr, reached the NCAA final eight a year ago. This year; if the Shockers aren't put on probation first by the NCAA for alleged recruting violations, they may go further. Levingston and Carr will be joined by Greg Dreiling, a 7-foot freshman who many think is as good or better than Georgetown's Pat Ewing, and Aubrey Sherrod, a 6-4 swingman who dominated many of last spring's all-star games.

* Georgetown, without adding freshmen, returns five starters from its 20-12 team and would be picked third in the Big East. With three of their freshmen -- Ewing, 6-7 Wiliam Martin from McKinley Tech and 6-6 Anthony Jones from Dunbar -- the Hoyas will be a legitimate final four contender by March.

* Virginia, even with 7-4 Ralph Sampson back to dominate the middle, would have to be looked at as a fading star with Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker gone. But if their top two freshmen, 6-9 Jim Miller and 6-5 Tim Mullen, come along as expected, Terry Holland will have a very good team before the year is over.

The exception is Kentucky. The Wildcats are built around 7-1 Sam Bowie, coming off a broken foot, and need the playmaking of Dirk Minnifield in order to succeed. Both are juniors.

In all likelihood, one of those seven teams will emerge in the Superdome as national champion on March 29. But at least a dozen others cannot be counted out because the game is so balanced.

Breaking the country down into the four regions that make up the NCAA Tournament -- East, Mideast, Midwest and West, this is who shapes up as having the most talent:

EAST -- The Big East may be a stronger conference top to bottom than the ACC. Besides conference favorite Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Boston College, Connecticut and Syracuse are all potential top 20 teams. Obviously, as has been the case in past years with the ACC, a couple of these teams will fade because they get knocked off by conference members. St. John's could be the sleeper because 7-0 Bill Wennington may be as good potentially as Ewing, Dreiling or Gray.

The Atlantic Coast should be dominated by North Carolina. Virginia has Sampson, so it is dangerous. Wake Forest has four senior starters back, but lost its hub, Frank Johnson, and must find a suitable replacement. Clemson has great talent and adds 6-5 freshman Joe Ward. N.C. State will be better because it has a good freshman class. Duke and Maryland will fight for sixth place and Georgia Tech will be better, but still last.

Alabama-Birmingham should win the Sun Belt Conference, but Lee Rose is building a solid base at South Florida. South Alabama and Virginia Commonwealth are still strong.

Princeton and Penn will, as always, decide the Ivy League title, West Virginia should win the Eastern Eight and American, St. Joseph's and La Salle should be the class of the East Coast Conference.

None of the independents or ECAC teams is final four material. South Carolina (17-10 last year) is improving, but young; Old Dominion and James Madison are tournament contenders.

MIDEAST -- Kentucky should win the Southeastern Conference, but watch out for Georgia, which had talent galore but no game experience a year ago. The Bulldogs now have experience and Dominique Wilkins, who may be at his best the most impressive player in the country. LSU, Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida will all be solid, but not great.

The Metro is your basic one-team conference, and the team is Louisville. Cincinnati should be better, but the best anyone outside Louisville can hope for here is second place.

The independents here, as always, are strong, led by De Paul, which will count on 6-10 freshman Walter Downing to make up for the loss of Mark Aguirre. Marquette has added experience but Notre Dame could be down, having lost its three top players and not replaced them. Still, Digger Phelps thinks he can steal 18 wins, which should steal him an NCAA bid.

If all his underclassman from last year were back and healthy, Bob Knight's Indiana team would be the national favorite and an easy pick for a seventh Big Ten title in 11 years. But with Isiah Thomas in the NBA and Landon Turner paralyzed after an automobile accident, many are writing Indiana off.

They shouldn't. The Hoosiers have a solid nucleus with Randy Wittman, Jim Thomas and Ted Kitchel back and added a super freshman in 6-10 John Flowers. They will battle lowa and Minnesota for the Big Ten title. Purdue, with 6-11 Russell Cross improving, is a good dark horse pick and Michigan State will be better. Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin will not be better. Northwestern will improve -- and might escape the cellar.

Toledo is the class of the Mid-American Conference.

MIDWEST -- Wichita State is clearly the class of the Missouri Valley but Tulsa, the NIT champion, has everyone back from a 26-7 team and Bradley also should make the NCAA tournament.

The Big Eight was solid and wide open last year with Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State all winning more than 20 games and K-State reaching the West regional final. Jack Hartman's team and Norm Stewart's Missouri team, if it can overcome internal problems, should be the best this year.

Houston and Arkansas should again be the teams to beat in the Southwest. Western Kentucky should win the Ohio Valley again and Evansville, last year's surprise team, should battle Xavier in the Midwestern City Conference. The Trans-America Conference should be won by Centenary.

WEST -- UCLA should return to dominance in the Pacific- 10 with Oregon State's losing Steve Johnson and the Bruins adding Gray. Arizona State will still be a factor but the dark horse team could be Southern California, with two good freshmen joining Stan Morrison's team.

The Western Athletic had a great season a year ago with Brigham Young, Wyoming and Utah earning national attention. Each team's top players were seniors, though, so the league may not be as strong this year. They should still be the three best in the league, although San Diego State could break through.

San Francisco is the class of the West Coast Athletic Conference and Fresno State should win the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference.