It is certainly the richest college tournament of all time, and probably the most wide open.

And the way Eastern teams are headed west and Western teams are headed east, this promises to be the most national National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament."This year's tournament is truly a national tournament," Jim Delany, chairman-designate of the selection committee, said Sunday when the 64-team NCAA bracket was unveiled. "I think we've come as close to having equal brackets, with equal regions, as we have in all my experience."

Cedric Dempsey, outgoing chairman of the nine-man committee, said predicting the eventual champion may be riskier than ever.

"I think the committee would think that any of the top four seeds in the four regionals are capable of reaching the Final Four," he said.

As always, cries of protest arose from rejected teams, particularly from fans of New Mexico, 20-10, and New Mexico State, 21-10. For New Mexico, it's the third straight 20-win, non-NCAA season.

But New Mexico coach Dave Bliss cautioned his team's followers to cool their ire.

"We're kind of like that NASCAR driver who misjudged how much fuel he had and all of a sudden we're coasting down the backstretch and 64 teams went by us," Bliss said.

Getting left out costs money as well as prestige, since a bid this year is worth a minimum $250,000.

But, more than ever, the committee's decisions on where to send teams also drew attention. In their effort to balance the four regionals and keep teams from playing on their home court, the committee has Arizona playing in Idaho rather than Tucson . . . Oklahoma in Tennessee instead of Dallas . . . Georgia Tech in Texas.

The committee met in Kansas City from Friday morning to Sunday afternoon before emerging with 34 at-large entries to go with 30 automatic qualifiers as conference regular season or tournament champions.

Each of the four regions has teams seeded one through 16. Picking the teams, and deciding where to assign them, consumed most of the weekend.

"There's no question that 80 percent of the time is devoted to one of those two processes," said Delany, who succeeds Dempsey as chairman next summer. "I think there probably is more pressure in the selection part because if we make a mistake in the selection, it means a deserving team is excluded. Each of us anguish more over the selection process, although the other things are very important."

First-round play begins Thursday and Friday at sites around the country, with the No. 1 seed playing No. 16, No. 2 meeting No. 15, etc.

The second-round winners advance to the regional semifinals the following weekend, and the regional winners converge in Seattle the first week in April for the Final Four. The title game will be April 3, and each Final Four team is guaranteed more than $1.2 million, according to NCAA estimates.

The payouts, in the final year of the NCAA's three-year contract with CBS, are slightly higher than last year's and the highest in tourney history. Winning a first-round game guarantees a payday of about $500,000.

The conferences that have dominated the tournament throughout this decade continued to hold sway. The ACC matched the tournament record with six teams, followed by the Big Ten, Big East and Southeastern conferences with five.

Illinois, runner-up to Indiana in the Big Ten, is seeded No. 1 in the Midwest Regional and Oklahoma, which lost Sunday to Missouri in the Big Eight tournament finals, is the top seed in the Southeast Regional in Nashville. Georgetown captured the top seed in the East Regional, which inconvenienced its Big East companion Syracuse because the Orangemen then became the No. 2 seed in the Midwest and were shipped to Dallas.

Arizona, ranked No. 1 in the final Associated Press Top Twenty, drew the No. 1 seed in the West Regional. But because of a new rule that says teams cannot play on their home court, the Wildcats were removed to Boise, Idaho, for the first round, while their campus in Tucson hosts eight other first-round games in the West.

The committee also tried to avoid any "home crowd" advantage. This resulted in Indiana not being allowed to stay in the Midwest and play in the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome. Instead, Bob Knight's team, which lost two of its last three, will be in Tucson Friday as the No. 2 seed in the West.

Eighteen teams with at least 20 victories did not make the field, while winners of automatic bids from lesser conferences included first-time entry McNeese State, whose 16-13 record is the poorest in the tournament.