When the St. John's publicist became morally indignant about publications that are little more than basketball tout sheets, Catholic University Coach Jack Kvancz told him: "Before we get on those guys, we'd better clean up our act. How good are we?"

Sadly, the answer is not very. Conditions for another collegiate scandal are ripe. But the first major trouble might well come from game officials rather than players. And if players get caught shaving points, the colleges have no one to blame but themselves.

"I don't believe in college basketball being something wrapped up in gambling sheets," Indiana Coach Bobby Knight told The Washington Post's Dave Kindred the other day. "I'm going to propose to the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) that we no longer cooperate with such magazines."

Wonderful, I am against anything that survives on human weakness . My inclination is to throw up at Dan Snyder's Sunday praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-point-spread-information talk show, although the line between that and proper analysis is a thin one.

But to imply that withholding information from touts is the answer-or ever a major factor-in relieving the mood for scandal is wrong. Knight is as aware of this as anyone; too many other coaches, athletic directors and even college presidents are not.

To smugly say "no" to the Gold Sheet and continue with business as usual is like performing the easiest cancer operation while allowing the disease to spread. Some collegiate cancers have been raging-largely ignored-for decades; some have become more obvious lately.

What is festering at the moment are conditions that all but make it impossible for a team to win outside its region without being 10 points better than the home team. Paranoia is almost as natural as a three-piece suit to a coach, bit an I'll-get-robbed-on-the-road-because-I'll-get-you-at-home attitude has become increasingly popular.

Regional pressure on officials is intense. Many tournaments even allow coaches a major decision in who officiates the championship games. One local official is whispered to be especially homerish, even in intra-area games.

The chase for players-at higher and higher speeds-has been on since it became possible for grownups to earn handsome incomes from children's games. As a young assistant, Kvancz got a closeup look at the ugly side of his profession.

It was at one of the nation's high-school flesh festivals, the Dapper Dan tournament in Pittsburgh, and a New Yorker with a rich reputation for delivering players was talking with a now-prominent college coach.

The man had just become coach at a California college and was deeply interested in the New Yorker's player. The player was headed for a junior college for a year or so, but it became clear he might later be persuaded to transfer to any college that hired a friend as an assistant coach.

Immediately, the now-famous coach fired his second assistant and hired the prospect's friend.

"And he did it in front of a lot of people," Kvancz said, "on the spot-ding-you're gone."

Kvancz since has learned a lesson-be candid, but only to a point.

"You do not name names," he said. "You do not put your head in a noose. I used to wonder why coaches didn't turn anyone in-and they'd laugh at me and say: 'He who has a clean closet throws the first skeleton.' And nobody's sure his closet is totally clean (because so many alumni and friends are involved in recruiting).

"That's one reason this isn't getting cleaned up." There are others. Most schools ask the wrong questions. Instead of saying of an athlete, "Does he belong in college?" the predominant question is: "Can we get him in?" Virginia is the latest school to realize that national football championships are not possible without relaxing some academic standards.

Hypocrisy is the national collegiate athletic pastime. Games are switched for television money, athletic dorms are built as a recruiting edge, assistants often are hired on the condition they deliver a gifted player-and than fired after that player turns pro. More games in more distant places are scheduled to balance budgets.

Every major-college football and basketball coach realizes playing freshman is wrong. Al but a few do it, anyway. The NCAA passes sensible rules, such as limits on visitations, and coaches-sometimes prospects-seek ways to bend them.

Coaches can penalize cheaters simply by refusing to play their teams. That rarely happens.

The players-and especially those the gamblers covet-are more aware of collegiate athletic reality than nearly everyone realizes.They have seen the compromises, men getting rich from their skills.

What if coaches were given tenure, to reduce the pressure on winning? What if, as Knight and others suggest, the number of scholarships were based on the number of graduates the sport produced? Nothing, even the seamy possibility of fixed games, flourishes without the proper climate.