As recently as Friday evening, before St. Joseph's and Temple advanced to the championship game of the Atlantic Ten conference, assuring that one would emerge as the league's champion, it was entirely possible that Philadelphia would be without a local rooting interest in the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time in more than three decades.

All six Division I programs had shoes, floors and bands, but that didn't mean any of them would be dancing this year.

Less than two days later, however, after the NCAA announced the invitations to its annual bracket bash yesterday evening, the names of St. Joseph's, Temple and, most surprisingly, Villanova, were pulled from the magic envelopes that separate the lucky ones from the grumblers each year.

"I thought this team got good enough to be an NCAA tournament team," said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "I was really proud of them. But I also know we put ourselves in a position where we had to leave it up to the committee. When you do that, you're anxious. "

Anxious enough that the Wildcats took the news in private, without prying television cameras to record their reaction if all the slots were filled without them. That happened a year ago to Drexel, and you can still see the crestfallen looks on the faces of the players who filed quietly from the room that day.

Temple had the easiest, and most public, wait - because the Owls beat St. Joseph's in the A-10 championship on Saturday to earn the conference's automatic bid. The Owls watched the selection show together on campus at the Draught Horse. The Hawks, balancing tentatively on the bubble of making the tournament, chose, like Villanova, to watch in private.

In the end, all three were able to celebrate, even if the coaches scurried off quickly to begin scouting the opponent for their respective first-round games. Invited they are, but respected would be another matter. St. Joseph's was given an 11th seed in the 65-team tournament; Temple and Villanova were given 12th seeds. Judging by the rest of the bracket, the Wildcats appear to have gotten the last of the 34 at-large bids awarded by the NCAA committee.

Because of their low seedings, the locals will all be underdogs, but each has proven good enough to pull off an upset now and then this season. Villanova plays Friday in Tampa, Fla., against a Clemson team that knocked off Duke in the semifinals of the ACC tournament over the weekend. St. Joseph's plays Friday in Birmingham, Ala., against Oklahoma, a good but not overwhelming team from the Big Twelve.

The most puzzling pairing, and seeding, is the one that Temple received. Not only were the Owls seeded beneath St. Joe's, a team they beat twice in the last two weeks, but their Atlantic Ten title meant so little that their 12th seed was the lowest given to the champion of a normally respected conference (except for Georgia and its 17-16 record in the SEC).

In a way, it's hard to argue. Coach Fran Dunphy's team developed late, and didn't pile up the sort of signature wins that the tournament committee likes to see. Still, the Owls won their final seven games, and, despite all that, match up in the first round on Thursday - more than halfway across the country, in Denver - against a Michigan State team that is ranked among the top 20 in the nation.

Dunphy was gracious about the deal, however.

"If you had said to me [Saturday], before the St. Joe's game, 'You're going to be a 12-seed, you're going to have to play Michigan State in Denver, would you take it?', I would be signing those papers right away," Dunphy said. "Any time you're able to get in the NCAA tournament, it's one of the special feelings you have as a coach - and certainly for the athletes and the schools. "

That's how much this thing means. The teams are willing to accept the arduous travel, the indifferent seeding, and the nasty opponent put before them, just to be able to take part. There was the usual long list of schools left crying outside the room yesterday, and the usual bleating about the unfairness of the situation.

On the campuses of Dayton and Illinois State, at Massachusetts, Ole Miss and Virginia Tech, they are complaining this morning about the space taken up by some of the 31 automatic qualifiers, many from conferences that are, to be charitable, not that competitive. They are moaning at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Ohio State and Arizona State about the committee's preoccupation with statistics and rankings and the paper-thin differences that divide the fortunate ones from the ones headed for the National Invitation Tournament.

How good does it feel to be inside rather than out?

"In some ways - this sounds a little crazy - it's a little like the birth of a child," said St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli. "You know a child is coming - and then all of a sudden, it's there. "

Now comes the post-partum phase, which won't be decided by a committee sequestered in a hotel conference center. The seedings won't help on the court, the strength-of-schedule and RPI numbers won't score a single basket.

Now comes the best part, and - what do you know? - they let Philadelphia into the big room after all.