The crucible called the ''NCAA Basketball Championships'' starts this week with 48 teams in the chase. Just two breathless weeks from now a quartet of regional survivors will pull into New Orleans for the concluding games.
Based on the always imperfect seeding process, which attempts to reward superior teams with good ''draws,'' North Carolina, Virginia, DePaul, and Georgetown should land in the Final Four. But in reality, the chances of that happening are slim and none. The competition is just too plentiful these days to make predictions with any degree of confidence.
Last year, for example, three of the top four seeds never advanced beyond their opening games.
Not surprisingly, this year's tournament raises all sorts of questions. Some of the more interesting are:
* Can a Dean Smith-coached team finally win a championship? Smith has taken three North Carolina squads to the finals, including last year's, but come away empty-handed each time. The Tar Heels enter the tournament ranked No. 1 with a 27-2 record.
* Will DePaul manage to win its opener? The Blue Demons, unable to shake the yoke of being top-ranked the last two years, have fallen in upsets on both occasions. Coach Ray Meyer is grateful to have side-stepped the pressures of being No. 1 this season. With a 26-1 team, it wasn't easy, yet DePaul is No. 2, and scheduled to face the winner of the Boston College-San Francisco game.
* Will the Big Ten make another strong showing in tournament play? The conference has produced three national champions since 1976 (Indiana twice, and Michigan State), plus had three other schools (Michigan, Purdue, and Iowa) reach the Final Four during this period.
* Can 7 ft. 4 in. junior Ralph Sampson of Virginia be denied? Any team with a talent of Sampson's magnitude figures to be in the thick of things, but Virginia has yet to reach an NCAA championship game.