The airport at Hartford, Conn., is 17 miles from Springfield, Mass. You ought to know that to appreciate Hal Wissel's story. He's a basketball coach whose Florida Southern University team won the NCAA Division II championship in Springfield two years ago.

"We were big news in the Springfield paper," Wissel said. "But when we got to Hartford, the paper there had us on page 12 in a small story."

Such is life in the little time.

"Big-timers may fly out two days before a game," said Jack Kvancz, whose Catholic University teams bounced from Division II to I to III before he left to be George Mason's athletic director. "We would leave by bus the morning of the game, eat in the cafeteria, get to the gym at 6:30, change, go play and get back on the bus and go home."

Maybe the University of the District of Columbia will win its second straight Division II national championship this weekend in Springfield. Outside of the next-of-kin and loved ones, hardly anyone in America will care.

"We have 4,000 students," said James Oliver, the Alabama State coach whose Division II teams at Kentucky State were wonderful, "and 3,900 of them couldn't tell you who UDC is. But if UDC was Division I, everybody would know them."

"In Washington, if you're Division II, you have to get into the final four to get any exposure," Kvancz said. "There are so many I's here that UDC almost has to win the national championship to be noticed. That may not be the way it should be, but that's the way it is."

Such is life in the little time.

Listen to the name itself. Division II. Suggestions of inferiority. It isn't true that only terrible students play in Division II; each university sets its own academic standards, some higher than the big-timers. Nor is it true that all the good players go big-time; the 6-foot-8 kids generally go to Division I unless they have three left hands, but from 6-4 down there isn't much difference.

It's the name. Division Two, as in one step below One.

"That's the killer," Wissel said. "Nobody likes to be '2' at anything. They'd be better off if they called one 'university' and the other 'college' division. I felt we had a basketball program that could compete with anybody. UDC does, too . . . But now the NAIA gets more publicity than Division II. The women get more publicity. Division II is an anonymity."

When Florida Southern wouldn't move from II to I, Wissel left and now coaches the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

"It's a shame. Everybody is going to be watching the NCAA tournament the next two weeks. You're thinking what a great player Ralph Sampson is, or Michael Jordan. Well, Earl Jones and Michael Britt of DC are great players, too," Wissel said.

Big-time basketball is all over CBS-TV for a month.

The little-timers get on cable for their championship game.

"Football Division II gets its national championship game on ABC-TV, but basketball doesn't," Kvancz said. "That's because of politics. To split Division I football into two groups, they had to throw a bone to the II. That bone is the television money. Division II basketball doesn't have a strong political lobby."

Did someone mention money? Money defines the boundaries between Division I and II. If you spend enough to set up a schedule by guaranteeing Division I teams big bucks, you can walk with the big boys. Otherwise, you're down there with the small-enrollment, low-income, underendowed colleges and universities of Division II.

Each of the four teams in the big-timers' national semifinals are paid almost $550,000 above expenses.

"If we made anything," said Wissel, "it might be $1,000."

At Alabama State, Oliver persuaded the university to move this season from Division II to I because it was a better financial deal even if it cost more.

"Division I recruiting budgets were bigger than my whole budget, $100,000, for scholarships and all. We still cut back on stuff when supposedly we're running short of money. I'd like to get a shot at doing it right, but right now it's still good for the school because of public relations, prestige and exposure.

"We had a great season (22-6, losing in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament), and we played some of the top teams. You couldn't spend enough money for the publicity we got. Every time a newspaper or TV ran the NIT bracket, there was Alabama State."

Meanwhile, the Division II national champion is a stranger 17 miles from the tournament site.

Wil Jones recently said, only half-kidding, that UDC would have to spend $500,000 to move from Division II to I. Kvancz says the move can be done for less than that, but only with a strong commitment to the idea.

"First, to be competitive, you need the full 15 scholarships. Second is a staff with a head coach, two full-time assistants and one part-time. The next step is an academic advisor, because if you're doing it right, you'll be on the road a lot. Fourth, you have to have enough operating money to travel the best way you can. Last, a recruiting budget that is fair and comfortable for your situation."

That's it?

"Where you get killed then are the nuances. A coach can drive you crazy. He doesn't like the carpet in his office. He doesn't like the pictures on the wall. Wil mentioned $500,000. I'm sure he, or any coach, could find ways to spend it. They'll drive you crazy about money."

Such is life in the big time.