AMHERST, MASS. — IN a college sports world severely tilted toward football and basketball, volleyball has begun to say, ''Look at me.'' And for good reason. Volleyball offers a lot to colleges that want to be represented in the best possible light. This was never clearer, perhaps, than at this year's National Collegiate Athletic Association Women's Volleyball Championship, hosted by the the University of Massachusetts here.
A list of what was appealing about this event, won by Nebraska Saturday night, has the potential to run longer than any top 20 football or basketball poll.
One could start with the smiles, which were abundant not only in victory, but in the heat of mid-match competition. This happy spirit alone was enough to make this a model event. But there was much more, including:
* A Final Four made up of reputable institutions (Nebraska, Stanford, Michigan State, and the University of Texas at Austin) that attract true student-athletes.
* The strongest, most competitive field the championship has had since the NCAA took it over in 1981.
* The Co-Players of the Year in Nebraska's Allison Weston and Stanford's Cary Wendell, who also happen to be academic All-Americans.
* Live national television coverage for the first time, with play-by-play and analysis handled authoritatively by commentators who know the game, Beth Mowins and Maria Barnes.
The pair, who worked for ESPN2, had a lot of action to describe, with spikes, blocks, and digs plentiful enough to keep even casual viewers engaged. The suspense gauge read ''full,'' too. Both best-three-of -five semifinals went the distance, with perennial power Nebraska knocking off upstart Michigan State and Texas coming from behind to upset defending champion Stanford.
Television coverage is seen as the last, major step in popularizing women's volleyball, which last year drew an NCAA tournament record 79,682 total spectators and 8,312 to the final at the Austin, Texas, championships.
The Final Four, which rotates geographically each year, made its first appearance in the Northeast, an underdeveloped volleyball area. Amherst was a logical site, though, since the headquarters of volleyball's centennial celebration is in neighboring Holyoke, the sport's birthplace and location of its Hall of Fame.
Next year Cleveland State University will host the Final Four as the NCAA continues its national hopscotch. The idea is not to shift volleyball's Western power base, but to share the volleyball gospel.
Women's volleyball has begun to come of age, as many clubs and high schools feed college programs across the United States.
Cindy Lewis, chairwoman of the NCAA Volleyball Committee, says opportunities are proliferating in women's volleyball. ''You're seeing elite-level schools, forced to comply with [federal] Title IX legislation, putting more money into the sport.'' The result of that law, designed to ensure that women athletes receive the same treatment as men, is the full funding of volleyball programs and a full complement of scholarships.
Chuck Erbe, Michigan State University's coach, says that there are ''tens of thousands of girls playing club volleyball all over the United State for one reason: to get an education. You can get a college scholarship.''
Besides clubs, high school programs feed the college game. In a 1994-95 survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, volleyball was No. 3 behind basketball and outdoor track in nationwide popularity, with 12,537 schools fielding teams and 340,176 participants.
Lewis says volleyball is second only to basketball in women's college participation, with the number of major-college basketball and volleyball programs nearly equal (297 to 286, respectively).
The beauty of this growth is that it's unmatched by men, who play intercollegiate varsity volleyball at only 25 Division I schools. The effect is to make volleyball women's turf, athletically.
The attendant benefit, says Margaret Bradley Doppes, the University of Michigan's senior associate athletic director and NCAA Women's Volleyball Committee member, is that women's volleyball is not being compared with the men's game, as occurs in basketball: ''Women's volleyball has kind of enjoyed a unique experience,'' she says, because it's appreciated on its own merits.
One of the next major challenges is attracting regular, live TV coverage, which could be difficult given the game's format. Matches can last from one to three hours, and TV does not like such unpredictability. The Big Ten experimented with a format this season designed to confine matches to about two hours. A cumulative scoring system had its bugs, but the conference is willing to spend $100,000 for TV time in which to continue testing.