COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT SELECTIONS : It Looks Like Field of Clones : National overview: Selectors talk of parity in a tournament UNLV and others will miss.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An exhausted Tom Butters, chairman of the NCAA men's tournament selection committee, emerged Sunday from the self-imposed world of S-curves, Rating Percentage Indexes and numbers crunching and immediately declared "that parity in college basketball has shown its face."

If so, schools such as Nevada Las Vegas, Oklahoma and Providence never want to see the ugly mug again.

Ending what Butters said was "perhaps the most unusual weekend in our lives," the nine-member committee sifted through reams of statistics and the rubble of conference tournament upsets only to find a talent pool rich in similarities. With only 34 at-large bids available in the 64-team tournament field, something had to give.

"It's one of those times where I wish I had more slots," Butters said.

Tell it to Oklahoma, which finished 19-11, but found itself with nose pressed against the tournament window, on the outside looking in. The Sooners were done in by a schedule that included three non-Division I opponents and only nine victories after Jan. 1. A first-round loss in the Big Eight tournament didn't help, either.

"They did not look the same as other teams in the field," Butters said.

UNLV has only itself to blame for the NCAA no-show. The Runnin' Rebels were a lock for the tournament not long ago, but then staggered toward season's end, losing five of their last 10 games and three of their last five. A two-point defeat by Cal State Long Beach in the Big West tournament semifinal all but sealed UNLV's fate, as did an unimpressive Rating Percentage Index, one of the key measures used by the selection committee.

Said Butters: "I felt they, like several schools, really had the (NCAA) tournament in their hands with 10 games to play and weren't as successful as they might have been."

So the Big West Conference had to settle for two of the precious invitations--one to Cal State Long Beach, which won the automatic bid, and one to regular-season champion New Mexico State.

As for UNLV, whose players and staff watched the selection show in stunned silence, the NCAA snub was especially painful. It marked the second consecutive season the Rebels have been left out of the tournament--they were on NCAA probation last year--and only the first time in 10 years that an eligible UNLV team has failed to earn a place among the 64-team field.

"You're hoping for the best, but you expect the worst," Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell said. "We didn't get what we wanted--three teams--but we didn't get just one, either.

"We knew (UNLV was) a bubble team based on their RPI. That's something the committee looks at and puts a lot of credence in."

There were more predictable results than surprises. As expected, North Carolina is the No. 1-seeded team in the East, Indiana No. 1 in the Midwest, Kentucky No. 1 in the Southeast and Michigan the top-seeded team in the West.

If the tournament progresses the way the committee believes it will, there could be some quality latter-round matchups.

For example:

--In the Midwest Regional, Duke and Kansas could meet. Better yet, Duke could face Indiana in the regional final, a rematch of last year's Final Four semifinal game.

--In the West, Arizona Coach Lute Olson gets to put his team where his mouth is. Olson recently lamented the lack of respect his Wildcats and the Pacific 10 Conference receives. Arizona could meet powerful Michigan in the region final.

--In the Southeast, second-seeded Seton Hall, which is playing as well as anyone these days, could play Kentucky, which was nearly unstoppable in the Southeastern Conference tournament. And if seventh-seeded Western Kentucky were somehow able to reach the regional final against the Wildcats--and this year, anything seems possible--it would feature Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino against his former assistant, Ralph Willard of the Hilltoppers.

--In the East, who knows? As long as North Carolina point guard Derrick Phelps, who suffered a severe bruise to his tailbone during the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, recovers in time for the start of Thursday's first-round game against East Carolina, the Tar Heels remain the overwhelming favorite to advance.

Butters warned everyone that this year's tournament, more than those in recent memory, will have upsets galore.

"I'm going to be immensely surprised, given the parity, given the seedings . . . if you don't see some early round wonderful ballgames," he said.

That's OK with teams such as California, Kansas State, Texas Tech, East Carolina, Long Beach, Missouri, George Washington and Marquette. As recently as two weeks ago, most of those programs were considered on the bubble. East Carolina, Texas Tech and Missouri were given little or no chance to make the field.

But it happened, thanks to conference tournament upsets and the stumbling of teams considered to be sure things.

James Madison was in until it lost to East Carolina, a team with a losing record. Houston was in until it lost to Texas Tech in the Southwest Conference tournament final. Providence, Florida, Minnesota, Pepperdine and Arizona State also had opportunities, but didn't do enough when it counted.

As it worked out, 12th-seeded George Washington and Marquette were among the last teams offered at-large bids.

Six ACC and Big Eight schools received invitations. There had been talk of the Big Eight getting seven bids, a thought forever seconded by Oklahoma Coach Billy Tubbs.

The Big Ten Conference also had a chance for seven, but got five after Minnesota and Wisconsin faded.

The Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic-10 each received four places in the tournament. The Atlantic-10's bids are noteworthy because it marks a shift, however temporary, in Eastern basketball stature. That's because the Big East Conference, long the power broker in the region, got only three.

Also receiving three bids apiece were the Pac-10, the Great Midwest Conference and the Western Athletic Conference.

What NCAA tournament watchers are left with are four regional brackets that--with the possible exception of the East--look strikingly alike. That was the committee's mission, to make the tournament as even as possible.

* NCAA WOMEN: Stanford is seeded first in the West, with USC No. 3. Top-ranked Vanderbilt is assigned to the Midwest. C11

* CONFERENCE FINALS: Seton Hall beats Syracuse, 103-70, the biggest victory margin in Big East title-game history. C12

* INDIANA: The second-ranked Hoosiers beat Wisconsin, 87-80, at Madison, Wis., to finish at 17-1 in the Big Ten. C13

* THE NIT: USC will play at Nevada Las Vegas and Pepperdine will play at UC Santa Barbara in first-round games. C14

* TEAM-BY-TEAM: C8-9

* MEN'S PAIRINGS: C10

* WOMEN'S PAIRINGS: C10

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