College sports almost always promise more than they deliver. They preach equality, yet work like blazes to deny women athletes a fair chance; they whine about inflation, yet give football scholarships to far more men who do not play than do; they worry about gamblers, about players cheating during games, yet create the sort of atmosphere where an honest coach often cannot survive.

The NCAA staged its ultimate basketball game Monday night while the president of the United States lay wounded in a hospital -- and I'm glad. Once again, it put college sports at the highest level in proper focus. If steelworkers, cabbies and every other laborer did not immediately walk off the job and mourn our national insanity, why should the industry of semiamateur sport stop?

Bobby Knight, and he will not be called Bob here until he grows up, had it all twisted when he walked into the Spectrum a few hours after President Reagan was shot and a few hours before his Indiana team was to play North Carolina for the national championship saying: "This puts basketball in a perspective."

Indeed it does, though hardly in the light he wanted us to believe. Knight and the other NCAA bottom liners tell us they have all the cures for what ails America, but they refuse to make many of the sacrifices.

It would have been an inspiring bit of leadership for NCAA officials to say when they learned of the shooting: "We are not opening the gym tonight. This is a time for national reflection -- and as responsible leaders who value citizenship above all else we are canceling the third-place game and postponing the championship game until Tuesday afternoon.

"This will be a great inconvenience and might cost us an enormous amount of money. But what we're doing simply is right. And if the colleges, at the highest level, do not offer leadership, who will?"

It would have been the best symbolic act possible, better than ribbons because of lot of people would have lost a lot of time and money. Nobody expected it, because these are Games rather than games, the final scene of a nearly $13 million tournament.

When he had won his second NCAA title in six seasons with as fine a defensive show as anyone could imagine and endured a 45-minute formal press conference, Knight was approached about an apparent contradiction in his philosophy.

You have been among the leaders in trying to bring some order and sense to big-time basketball, he was told. You have verbally slapped gamblers and publications that seem to at least tolerate gambling -- and properly so. You have said the final four teams ought not to be getting so much money, because it encourages cheating. You have said the country has misplaced many of its priorities.

With this in mind, how can you justify a basketball game at a time like this?

"A great many people don't understand Indiana basketball," Knight said. "It stands for what's really good. For what we represent, these kids deserve to have a chance to play in something like this." Then he hurried away.

As his team had earlier in whipping Carolina, Knight had overplayed on defense. He had deflected the question, gobbled it up, run with it and tried to make points with it.

Carolina Coach Dean Smith was so preoccupied with the loss he forgot about Reagan's being shot for several seconds at one point during his postgame press conference. When did you know you'd be playing? somebody asked, a reference to the NCAA huddling after the Virginia-LSU game had ended.

Smith's face went blank. Words failed him. After an embarrassing silence, an NCAA public-relations official prompted him and Smith answered the question.

The players at least were honest.

"I'm happy the president wasn't dead," said Isiah Thomas, the Indiana floor leader judged the tournament's most outstanding player. "But a lotta people get shot. I'm glad he could think with his brain. That's the most important part. We were just trying to go out and win a game."

Which they did, spectacularly, executing exactly the Basketball Philosophy According to Knight.

"Our ultimate objective," Knight said, "is to beat a team down over 40 minutes, with defense, pressure on the ball and patience on offense." Knight's Hoosiers versus Smith's Tar Heels was toughness against finesse, the '60s Packers over the '70s Cowboys.

Indiana played defense as well as that is possible, both denying the ball to a player and keeping him from using that tactic against the Hoosiers; and profited on offense from backdoor baskets, from faking one way, getting the overanxious defender out of position, switching direction to get free and catching a pass for a layup or easy jumper.

"And you can't come from behind against Indiana," said St. Joseph's Coach Jim Lynam, who has as fine a tactical mind as any in the game. "They spread the floor and have the best penetrator (in college basketball) in Isiah Thomas."

Knight was charming and expansive at times after the victory, volunteering that Indiana had both the highest five-game margin of victory in NCAA tournament history and also the most losses of any champion, nine.

"When we had lost nine games," he said, "I kept saying to myself: "We could be 26-9." They were 16-9 at the time, after a road loss to Iowa. To go 26-9, they would have to win the national championship. They did.

To this sermon, Knight, Smith and the rest of the NCAA can say: look at yourself and your business. Why don't the sports sections, the unnecessary parts of newspapers, cease out of respect at times such as the Reagan shooting? What if we had called off the game? You have a certain amount of space to fill. Surely, you would not have relinquished it. You would have filled it with news of other sports.

Probably.

So the bottom line on the bottom liners is to take them for what they are instead of how they want us to see them. We can admire their work and not expect too much, realize that while they talk of an ideal world they rarely live it.