THURSDAY'S GAME IN the Huntsman Center between Ohio State and Providence typified what's wrong with the NCAA national championship basketball tournament as we know it.

Not that there's much wrong to begin with. The NCAA tournament is one of America's most successful and popular sporting events, watched live or on TV by a nation of spectators still held captive in their houses by the last grips of winter. The tournament makes so much money it doesn't know where to spend it all, so it uses some of it to build new office buildings in Kansas and hire investigators to review UNLV's itemized hotel receipts.But there are still a few flaws in the tournament format, there for sports writers to magnify, and the Ohio State-Providence pairing revealed them.

Flaw One is that television dictates the starting times of games, producing, for example, the 9:37 tipoff for Thursday's contest. The game won't finish until around midnight here in the Rockies, and around 2 a.m. in Manhattan. The majority of the people in the Huntsman Center will be displaced Buckeye alums, people who work graveyard, and insomniacs.

(Granted, television also dictates the tremendous revenue the tournament makes - worth $286,000 for every team that plays one game - so there is an inherent contradiction in the system. Namely, why satisfy 10,000 live customers when you can satisfy 15 million at home, and make a lot of money in the process? Still, it seems that there could be some compromise to accommodate the local fans, players, coaches, etc. Perhaps a curfew of some sort.)

Flaw Two is that the tournament qualification system produces matchups like this one - a sixth place team from the Big Ten that barely won more than half its regular season games against a fifth place team from the Big East that barely won more than half its games.

It is hard to imagine a more boring pairing, even though the game could well have been quite competitive since sixth place in the Big Ten is roughly the same as fifth place in the Big East.

To add to the dullness, the Buckeyes and Friars are playing in Salt Lake City, several thousand miles from their respective campuses and from most anyone who cares.

Teams that finish sixth and fifth in their leagues and don't win postseason NCAA-qualifying tournaments don't belong in the 64-team national tournament. They've not only spent four months proving their mediocrity, but putting them in the meet only serves to widen the talent gap in NCAA basketball that is already too wide. (Or, did you uncover your eyes long enough to watch the WAC this year?)

There's no question that Ohio State and Providence rank among the top 64 teams in America. But that's because they play in the Big Ten and the Big East, where good teams and good talent abound and your strength of schedule, no matter who you are, is going to be off the charts. These teams are good by association, not accomplishment.

As so-so teams from top conferences continue to make big TV paychecks and continue to enjoy the exposure of television, they can't help but continue to recruit America's best talent.

The result is a continued lop-sidedness in NCAA basketball. The system favors the strong. The teams and leagues that win get more money and more TV appearances so they can attract good players and get even more money and even more TV appearances so they can win more.

Doesn't it seem rather contradictory that the NCAA, in an effort to create a level playing field, takes such pains to establish and monitor recruiting rules, most of them as minor as who pays for a phone call, and then contributes to a caste system that can't help but keep the rich richer?

They should have put in a few other mediocre teams into the tournament instead of these two - schools that could use the big bucks to help them begin to climb up to the level of the Big East and Big Ten.

Actually, what they REALLY should do is get those nine men out of that hotel room in Kansas City on Selection Sunday and open the tournament to all comers. Start at 256 teams and whittle down from there. That's what John Wooden thinks, and who's smarter when it comes to college basketball, nine men in a hotel room with a computer and a lot of favors to pay or John Wooden?

There would be some colossal opening-round mismatches with a 256-team tournament, but virtually all teams would nonetheless have a chance.

Discriminating college basketball fans could get this equality movement - as well as the live-fans-have-rights-too movement - started by boycotting the Ohio State-Providence game. The problem is, discriminating fans stayed away in droves anyway, and not because of a moral obligation, but because even Johnny Carson doesn't stay up that late.