March 1-2

McDonald's American Cup (gymnastics)

Gymnasts bearing ''Made in USA'' labels often vault and flip to victory in this international meet. Last year, the winners were Americans John Roethlisberger and Kristy Powell. This year, Powell will be an underdog to talented American Dominique Moceanu. The competition is being held in Fort Worth, Texas.

March 3

Grand Prix of Miami (auto racing)

The IndyCar circuit opens its 18th season - and none too soon, given that the Indy Racing League, a serious new rival, held its inaugural race at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in late January. Most of the big-name drivers, who have sided with the IndyCar group, have been champing at the gas pedal to get started.

Los Angeles Marathon

This race begins its second decade with a new course designed to yield fast times and boost downtown revitalization. Pat Connelly, the marathon's commissioner, says competitors will be like sails with the wind at their backs once they turn onto Sunset Boulevard eight miles from the finish. It's all downhill from there.

March 4-10

World Cup Alpine skiing finals

Lillehammer, Norway, which hosted the 1994 Winter Olympics, once again invites the Alpine community to its snow-covered doorstep. Polite Norwegians may want to reserve their loudest cowbell-ringing for several native sons who were medalists in the recent world championships in Spain. On March 16 and 17, cross-country skiers and ski jumpers hold their World Cup finals in Oslo.

March 14 and 15

NCAA basketball tournaments begin

College-basketball fans live for this feeding frenzy of National Collegiate Athletic Association games. Sixty-four men's teams get into action on March 14, with a like number of women's teams following suit a day later. CBS and ESPN will provide blanket TV coverage. The brass ring is a berth in the Final Four two weeks later. (The women play in Charlotte, N.C., the men in East Rutherford, N.J.) Entering the postseason, Louisiana Tech is top-ranked among the women, the University of Kentucky is No. 1 among the men. The University of Connecticut and UCLA are the respective defending champions.

March 17-24

World Figure Skating Championships

Skaters competing in Edmonton, Alberta, will divvy up more than $900,000 in prize money, a clear inducement to those tempted to chuck their Olympic dreams to become out-and-out professionals. Canada's Elvis Stojko, the defending men's champion, will perform before an especially appreciative audience. China's Lu Chen will attempt to retain her women's crown.

March 28-31

Nabisco Dinah Shore (golf)

In the 46-year history of the women's professional golf, this is one of the few LPGA tournaments to reach a major anniversary: The Shore tournament, begun by the late singer-entertainer, blows out 25 candles in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Since this is the first major tournament of 1996, the field is a veritable Who's Who of women's golf.

March 31

Baseball Opening Day

Rarely is the first ball of the year thrown out before April, but after last season's delayed start, no one is likely to complain unless it snows.

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