Michigan coach Bill Frieder has said it until his face is as blue as his Wolverines' road uniforms: "There's tremendous parity in college basketball today, and people, fans and the media have got to accept that."

Frieder was supplied an arsenal of ammunition for his cause last weekend, when the top three teams in the country all were upset victims."All Illinois had to do was beat Minnesota and they'd be No. 1," Frieder said. "Then all Georgetown had to do was beat LSU and they'd be No. 1. Then all Louisville had to do was win at home against a middle-of-the-road Ohio State team and they couldn't do it. That just says it all."

Not quite. Because the parity is more than skin deep. It pervades college basketball from top to bottom.

There may be no greater example this season than West Virginia, which has won 15 games in a row, the longest current streak in the nation, going into Sunday's game against Rutgers.

For all that, it wasn't until last week that the Mountaineers cracked the Top 20. "Geography works against us," says West Virginia coach Gale Catlett. "Back in 1982 we were 17-1 and didn't get into the rankings until Feb. 3.

"We're fighting the schedule, the same way our football team did. We don't get TV exposure like a lot of folks do."

The Mountaineers also helped bury themselves in obscurity with early season losses to Robert Morris and Bradley. Indeed, the most fascinating facet of their 16-2 record is that both losses came at home against less than lethal opposition.

"I was doing some experimenting," explains Catlett. "We had four starters back and an outstanding freshman coming in and felt we were going to be a good club. I knew who our best five players were, but I was trying to find out who our third guard was, who our third forward was, who our backup center was."

In those losses, "I kept rotating players in regardless of the game situation."

But with a 1-2 record going into a game at Pittsburgh, "I just had to stop it. We played who we thought the top seven were."

They won at Pittsburgh - something No. 1 Oklahoma couldn't do - and haven't lost since. Their schedule is not loaded with Top 20 teams, but two of their fellow Atlantic 10 teams made the final 16 in the NCAA tournament last season.

"Temple and Rhode Island had very good clubs, and that helped our league," says Catlett. Both are having down years, and West Virginia, which is 10-0 in the league, is suffering guilt by association.

Catlett is keenly aware of West Virginia's basketball heritage because he was a part of it. "I grew up in the hills of West Virginia," he says.

But when he was summoned home a dozen years ago, "they had not won 20 games since the 1963 season, my senior year. Last year was the first time in eight years we did not win 20."

Still, the Mountaineers have never fared well in the NCAA tournament under Catlett and remain just one of a proliferating number of emerging programs on the fringe of breaking through.

Why the tremendous parity in college basketball? "The No. 1 thing that led to parity has been scholarship limitations," Catlett says. "There are so many good players and you can't stack them up anymore. I coached one year at Kentucky under Adolph Rupp and we'd pick up six guys we couldn't use just so the other guys in the league couldn't get them.

"My guys play basketball the year around. Ten years ago I used to steal five games a year by outcoaching people. Right now, I don't know if I can steal any because there's so much competition."

Ohio State coach Gary Williams agrees that "it goes back to the scholarship limitations where you can't stockpile players. No team has the market cornered on good players."

Other coaches cite other reasons. "One of the things to look at," says Iowa's Tom Davis, "is the tremendous growth of Final Four money. More schools are pushing basketball harder because the rewards are greater."

Whatever the reasons, parity is here. "Just look at Kansas last year," suggests Catlett. "They were in terrible trouble. I coached there for four years and last February 1 a guy who is very close to the program there called me and said, `Gale, our program is falling apart.'

"He called me back in April after Kansas won the NCAA tournament and said, `I guess you think I'm a darned fool."'