The acronyms are UNLV, CBS and NCAA. For the uninitiated, that's the University of Nevada-Las Vegas being told it Can Be Seen all season on television and will be allowed to defend its national title in the No Conscience Athletic Association's postseason basketball tournament. Is it any wonder they call it March Madness?

When the NCAA Committee on Infractions announced a couple of weeks ago that UNLV had plea-bargained its way out of a perfectly proper penalty that would have kept America's top-ranked team out of the tournament this year, eyebrows and voices were raised coast to coast.

Coach Jerry Tarkanian had been locked in a bitter legal struggle with the NCAA for 13 years over serious recruiting transgressions. In an unprecedented action, the NCAA decided to end the story -- and perhaps the litigation -- by allowing UNLV to pick its poison. Either Tarkanian could be suspended from coaching during this year's tournament and have his team sit out the 1992 tournament, or the school could be banned from live television in the 1991-92 regular season and from the 1992 tournament.

That was no choice. It was a window of opportunity to demonstrate once again what big money and smart lawyers can do. With four returning starters and a chance to become the first team to repeat since the UCLA juggernauts of the early 1970s, UNLV giddily barged through Door No. 1, and CBS officials were there to greet them.

John Weistart, a Duke University law professor, frequent NCAA critic and author of the book "The Law of Sports," wonders if the Vegas decision "passes the smell test. In my mind, it does not. It smells like there is some connection with the broadcasting contract. Why should this team be treated differently? Why now?"

The long tentacles of television were evident in this case, even if no one can find the smoking gun and NCAA and CBS officials deny the network had any role in this dreadful decision.

Asked about that last week, NCAA Executive Director Dick Schultz fairly bristled at the mere suggestion the network was involved in getting the Shark off the hook.

"That's about as ridiculous a statement as I've heard," he said. Then later: "That's so far out in left field I can't even respond to it. CBS has no input in anything the NCAA does. It's absurd."

No input? How about the $1 billion the network is putting into the NCAA for exclusive rights to televise the entire NCAA tournament the next seven years? Surely the NCAA occasionally gets a fax, a collect call from Black Rock, CBS's Manhattan headquarters.

UNLV just now is America's marquee team, and the Rebels' well-deserved rogue reputation has added a devilish dash to the mix. What kind of tournament would it be with the defending champion and its persecuted coach banished from the festivities?

The germane story here is Tough Times at CBS. The network last week announced its fourth-quarter results will include a $55 million after-tax loss and a $115 million after-tax charge to cover anticipated losses for the remaining three years of its $1 billion contract with Major League Baseball.

With advertising a difficult sell in a troubled economy to begin with, a diluted NCAA basketball tournament can't help, no matter how much network executives insist ratings for the games would not be affected significantly, if at all, by UNLV's absence.

"When you look at the 10-year history of the NCAA tournament on CBS . . . the share for the tournament has stayed at 24, no matter who's in there," said Len DeLuca, CBS Sports vice president for program planning. "I'm certain our nine-year track record would be continued if UNLV was not available. And to suggest we'd have influence on the infractions committee belies knowledge of the way the NCAA works.

"From the standpoint of entertainment, it's great {that UNLV can play}. The fact that UNLV will be there is great TV. Would we have lost viewers if UNLV was not there? I don't think so."

DeLuca said neither he nor anyone else at the network applied pressure on the NCAA. Alan Williams, University of Virginia history professor who chairs the infractions committee, also said "nothing was done, certainly not by CBS or any other TV entity. We try to avoid even talking about TV. . . . It may come as a surprise to you, but nobody really talks to us."

In this case, though, the television people didn't really have to. Everyone knows about the alliance of television and college sports.

"I think part of it has to do with the celebrity value of the team and the players, and that very definitely ties to TV and broadcasting," Weistart said. "What's the biggest pressure on college sports? There's no question. It's broadcasting. No one from the network had to say anything. The people on the infractions committee are not unaffected by television. A high level of publicity is our frame of reference, and I really do think it does make a difference.

"The Tarkanian case sends out another message that any criminal lawyer you talk to will agree with. If you have a defendant and his back is to the wall, the best course of action is to delay, delay and delay some more. The more you delay, the more the circumstances will change. It did here."

And it may change again. The NCAA is still looking at Tarkanian's role in the recruiting of New York high school star Lloyd Daniels a few years ago. And some believe the Shark may not be able to wriggle free this time. I'm not one of them.

Here's one scenario: Tarkanian blitzes through the regular season, dominates the NCAA tournament, then tells the world -- via a postgame interview with Billy Packer, of course -- he's got nothing left to prove. He says he'll take his championship ring (not to mention his bonus from the university, 10 percent of the team's NCAA revenue) and walk off into a desert sunset.

Trailed, no doubt, by a minicam.