LOS ANGELES -- Surely, the NCAA can do nothing more to surprise or enrage any rational human being. Once, back in the days immediately following the NCAA's ridiculously harsh probation imposed on the University of Maryland basketball program, some of us thought the NCAA Steering Committee would hear Maryland's appeal and eventually come up with a punishment that more appropriately fits the crime.

We should have known better. If Clemson, which has become synonomous with cheating in the 1980s, was let off with barely a slap on the wrist for its latest in a series of transgressions and if UNLV's basketball players are going to be sanctioned for a 17-year grudge against their coach, we should have known that the NCAA (whether it's the enforcement division, the Committee on Infractions or the Steering Committee) was almost incapable of doing the right thing.

For the rule-breaking that transpired at College Park in recent years -- most of it during Bob Wade's brief but destructive tenure -- Maryland's basketball program ought to be punished. But the three-year probation, which includes a two-year ban from postseason play, a one-year ban from live television and the return of more than $400,000, is way out of line. The Steering Committee should have acknowledged as much; instead they denied Maryland's final appeal.

Maryland had one especially salient point. The Committee on Infractions penalized Maryland for seven additional "institutional control" violations that Maryland didn't even know it was being charged with. A governing body should administer justice after due process. Any pre-law student knows that; apparently the NCAA does not. How can you justify punishing someone for something he hasn't been officially charged with? Imagine you're in court contesting a traffic ticket, and when the guilty verdict is returned, you've also been thrown in the slammer for aggravated assault.

In defense of its indefensible position, the NCAA said that this was "the most severe case" of a basketball-ticket violation since 1985. If the NCAA believes that, it must employ an investigative staff full of Inspector Clouseaus.

William E. Kirwan, president of the College Park campus, said it is in the school's best interest not to file suit against the NCAA (focusing on the lack of due process issue) but to begin the process of getting on with its life. Kirwan's reasoning is understandable, but some of us would like to see the school take some sort of legal action anyway. The NCAA has exhibited an almost blatant disregard for anyone trying to attend Maryland on an athletic scholarship, from basketball players to gymnasts.

As outrageous as Maryland's probation is, it's no worse than the one recently imposed against the UNLV basketball team, which penalized kids who were no more than 5 years old when Jerry Tarkanian angered the NCAA by taking it to court. UNLV has announced it will appeal. The players should sue the NCAA.

This is not a defense of Tarkanian, and violations allegedly committed over his controversial tenure at UNLV. But no responsible governing body would take out its frustration at unsuccessfully dealing with an adult by punishing his pupils.

Yes, an institution must be responsible for the actions of one of its agents, in these cases, basketball coaches. But it's up to the NCAA to devise a way to punish the institution or a coach without hurting students who had nothing to do with the infractions. When Maryland forced Wade to resign, it did demonstrate some instutitional control, albeit late in the game.

When Maryland cooperated with the investigation, it demonstrated at least some small degree of institutional control; Maryland also slit its own throat. The Steering Committee, by upholding the Committee on Infractions' harsh penalty, is telling schools (whether it wants to or not), "Don't cooperate with us, or we'll get you." There is no incentive for tomorrow's cheaters to fess up. A school under investigation, trying to decide whether to cooperate, now needs only to look toward College Park for guidance.

Since the NCAA has no power of subpoena, you'd say, "If we don't admit it, if we shut up all our people, you can't prove a thing." This is the climate the NCAA has created.

It also has killed Maryland basketball -- perhaps all of Maryland athletics -- for several years. We've been waiting and waiting and waiting for Maryland to hit rock bottom. Now, the wait is over.

Probation, players transferring, huge deficits, no athletic director, appeal denied. If Gary Williams leaves -- and who could blame him? -- Maryland would have to search for its third basketball coach in two years.

Five years ago this month, Maryland had the No. 1 football team in the country, according to at least one preseason poll, and the basketball team wasn't far behind, in the top 10 with young Len Bias. Five years later, Maryland lies flat on its back, mostly through its own transgressions. The school is out of appeals, absolutely out of luck, the imprint of the back of the NCAA's heavy hand on its cheek.