In the sewer of American college athletics, you can get away with anything if you've got enough lawyers, money and gall. UNLV (The University of Nevada Lost Values) has plenty of all three. So, the Runnin' Rebels are back in the NCAA tournament. And they'll probably be champs again. But I need help swallowing this one.

In our fantasies of an honest world, we imagine that, while justice may work slowly, it works inexorably. The NCAA has been after Coach Jerry Tarkanian for 13 years. It has pursued him all the way to the Supreme Court. Every year the net around him grows tighter and the chance of him escaping ultimate punishment for his recruiting crimes grows bleaker. And the case of the recruiting of New York star Lloyd Daniels -- the one that may have "Life" written on it -- hasn't even gotten on the docket yet.

While we tell ourselves these things, the laughter in the casinos gets louder every season. The Vegas wise guys know better than we do. If your con is slick enough, you'll be gone (or too old and rich to care) when the sheriff knocks.

How Jerry Tarkanian must be laughing at the straight arrows now. The NCAA has let him off again. So what if UNLV now has been kicked out of the 1992 NCAA tournament and can't be on TV that season? That's next year. By then, there'll be a new scam, a new dodge, a new battery of lawyers. If you can dodge the rules for 13 years -- no, make that 14 now -- why not forever?

You can bet they're slapping backs from the Golden Nugget to the Sands. The white tigers in the gilded cage at The Mirage are probably exchanging paw slaps. Live on the margin, buy on credit. File for Chapter 11, then relocate. Divorce the old lady and grab a show girl. Break the rules but make the right friends. And always hire good lawyers.

Of all Tarkanian's slick moves, yesterday's was the slickest. On the one hand, Tarkanian, and those operating in the noble behalf of his university and its players, threatened the NCAA with enough law suits to make the scales of justice spin like a ferris wheel.

On the other hand, Tarkanian got that weepy look in his eye and hid behind his loyal, persecuted players. Please, don't inflict those long-ago sins of 1977 on Stacey Augmon, Larry Johnson and the rest of the defending national champion Runnin' Rebels. They didn't do anything wrong. They were barely out of diapers when those rules were broken. Is there no statute of limitations in this cold, cruel world?

The NCAA found itself whipsawed. It didn't have the backbone to stand up to a lawsuit on behalf of UNLV players -- a suit which might have claimed that the NCAA was just acting on an ancient vendetta against Tarkanian and that the players' future NBA livelihoods might be damaged.

Also, the NCAA was moved by the plight of Augmon and Johnson. They could be in the NBA, making millions now, but they were loyal to Tarkanian and came back to school even after those tournament sanctions.

Of course, in the back of the NCAA's mind there might have been other thoughts. What if UNLV, with those six seniors, including four returning starters, went undefeated in the regular season. Augmon might well have carried out his threat: "The NCAA tournament is just a token now . . . Whoever wins will know the victory is hollow."

And the TV ratings might not be so good either.

For the youth of America, the moral of this story should be simple and obvious. Look at the hoop programs at UNLV and the University of Maryland.

For the most part, Maryland has always tried to run a clean program. It has no history of violations or even bending the rules. When it found out that under former coach Bob Wade some fairly serious rules had been violated, the school tried to help the NCAA with its investigation in every possible way. Come clean. Tell the cops the works. Some assistant coaches drove a kid to class. Some free sweatshirts and sneakers got handed around. Players got caught selling game tickets. Maybe the coach didn't tell the truth right away. Small to mid-level stuff. But no mystery Jaguars or faked grades.

So what happened to Maryland? The NCAA dropped the bomb on them. Off TV for one year. Out of the tournament for two years. You name it, Maryland got drilled with it. Did Maryland hire an NCAA-hardened law firm and get tough? No, they rode with some in-state lawyers.

"The biggest mistake the University of Maryland ever made was not hiring a private law firm to threaten the NCAA. Maryland wouldn't spend $50,000, so they lost $3.7 million," said one prominent Maryland alumnus who is very familiar with the Terrapins' situation. "Everybody who gets off light -- Vegas, Missouri, Illinois -- they have the fancy lawyers ready to go after the NCAA. And the NCAA doesn't have the guts to hit 'em hard."

Maryland tried to fess up and clean up. Maryland didn't threaten and connive and delay.

And, this season, Maryland is out of the NCAA tournament while Las Vegas will be in. When Maryland, with its history of decency, asked the NCAA for a common-sense reevaluation and a little justice, the NCAA said "Get lost." When UNLV and Tarkanian, with their track record of indecency, showed up with legal threats and a sneer, the NCAA folded its hand and said, "Go on, win the title back to back. We'll catch you later. Maybe."

Maryland Coach Gary Williams is trying to save his program from ruin, while Jerry Tarkanian tries to figure out what to do with his 223 free season tickets and nationwide fame. He wins again.

Let's hope all this gets straightened out at the Pearly Gates. Because the NCAA will never set it right.