St. John's center Marco Baldi, a highly prized freshman from Italy, today was declared ineligible for 16 games by the NCAA for an expenses-paid trip from New York to Milan provided by his Italian professional club. The sanction, effective immediately, came just as the sixth-ranked Redmen prepared to open play in the NCAA tournament.

Baldi, a 6-foot-11 reserve who averages just under 10 minutes a game, is out of the tournament, St. John's Athletic Director John Kaiser confirmed from his New York office. The only penalty to the team is the loss of its backup center -- but it reduced the Redmen's roster to eight players, smallest squad in the tournament, going into tonight's Montana State game.

The infraction involved a round-trip plane ticket last June from New York to Milan paid for by SIMAC, the club for which Baldi played as an amateur and which owns his future professional rights in Italy. Baldi made the trip to try out for an Italian amateur national team that was to tour China. He did not make the team.

The ban was set at 16 games on the basis of that being half the number of games he has played for St. John's.

Kaiser, in calling the penalty "excessive," said the NCAA determined this morning that the Italian amateur basketball federation, and not the club, should have paid for Baldi's transportation. The federation did pay for Baldi's air fare from his home in Milan to Rome, where the tryouts took place. Kaiser added that the principals were unaware of any wrongdoing, and that the violation resulted from a difference in what the NCAA considers appropriate expense money and what the Italian federation considers appropriate.

St. John's had flown a redshirt freshman to California to round out practices. Baldi, officials said, would continue to work out with the team but not be allowed to suit up for games.

Kaiser said the school was appealing to the NCAA eligibility committee and although it was improbable Baldi would be reinstated during the tournament, "anything's possible."

Coach Lou Carnesecca also expressed shock at the harshness of the penalty, as well as the timing.

"I don't understand it," he said. "Marco . . . doesn't understand it. We did nothing wrong, the kid did nothing wrong . . .

"What I've got to do now is prepare for the game," Carnesecca said. "We've got one less . . . I'll treat it like he's hurt and can't play. Suppose we had a rash of influenza and no one could play. Thank God we've got eight. I've got to go with what I've got."

Baldi was a major recruiting target out of Long Island's Lutheran High School, which he attended his senior year as an exchange student. Among the schools that courted him was Maryland, whose Coach Lefty Driesell visited him in Italy last summer.