A mood of constant distress and perplexed hand-wringing always surrounds college sports. On Wednesday, UNLV and the NCAA went at it again. Yesterday, newspaper charges of big-time hanky panky were aimed at Syracuse's basketball program. All in all, a typical week. What's the mystery? At best, big-time athletics and honest academics are an incongruous mix.

Mathematics, Milton, and multimillion-dollar games are an inherently mismatched marriage. "That's been the problem from Day One," North Carolina Coach Dean Smith said yesterday. "The abuses in the college system hit bottom in the '70s. Now, we're coming back -- some."

Decade after decade, why do we insist on pretending that all remarkable basketball and football players have a place in our universities?

"A lot of them obviously don't belong," said Clifford Adelman of the U.S. Department of Education. "There should be professional minor leagues in football and basketball. Obviously, the NFL and the NBA should be doing this, not our colleges."

Just as obviously, the NFL and NBA probably never will. So we are left with an unnatural and compromised system. One which often shocks us with how well it works despite itself. And how much better it might function with a few changes and a little common sense.

This week Adelman published an exhaustive report -- "Light and Shadows on College Athletics" -- based on data in the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972. Investigate 12,600 people for 18 years and this is some of what you get.

Despite having poor high school grades and test scores, college football and basketball players included in the study have an only slightly lower college graduation rate than students in general.

When revisited at age 32, former college basketball and football players have the lowest unemployment rate and the highest rate of home ownership among any groups of students Adelman studied. This despite the fact that jocks take longer to graduate, earn lower grades and take less demanding courses than the average student.

In almost all respects, statistics on black football and basketball players follow the same patterns as whites (including a graduation rate of better than 50 percent). Also, football and basketball players have a graduation rate nearly twice as high as other black college students.

"Anyone who says we exploit college athletes is crazy," Adelman said yesterday. "We give them a free ride from childhood well into adulthood. But is that what we should be doing in our universities?"

Adelman puts a sour spin on his stats. He says athletes fare better than has generally been assumed because of tutors, "safety nets" and scholarships. Privately, he discounts the low jobless rate and high incomes (10 percent above the mean) of ex-jocks as due to "coaches and alumni taking care of them after they get out of school. Many of them are craftsmen, school teachers or are in buy-sell jobs with little upward mobility. They're not going to look as good relative to their peers in another 10 years."

Adelman's report dovetails with a story done by The Post's Amy Goldstein and Mark Asher last Sunday on athletics at Maryland since Len Bias's death in 1986.

As much as any school, Maryland has tried, almost desperately, to clean up its act. The school held the door for Bob Wade and Lefty Driesell, then cooperated so thoroughly with NCAA investigators that the basketball team is out of the NCAA tournament for two years. Entrance requirements are up. Special exceptions for athletes are down. More tutors are in place. Ex-Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger has been put in charge and everybody's under the microscope.

Nonetheless, Goldstein and Asher found a troubling pattern. While the overall high school work of Maryland football and basketball players is now near the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and while both grades and graduation rates have improved, many Maryland athletes still do not meet regular admissions requirements.

In a nutshell, Maryland athletes in money sports were good high school students by ACC jock standards. But that is such a low standard that Maryland athletes are also way behind other Maryland students. The athlete gap in SAT scores: 140 points. For basketball recruits in the class of '89-90, that SAT gap was 300 points.

Does this doom Maryland athletics to more scandals and disappointment? If so, dozens of other major colleges, which build around comparable borderline "scholars," are in the same leaky boat. The feeling here is that Adelman's report gives cause for hope.

Football and basketball players, both black and white, start their college careers far behind in the classroom in the huge majority of four-year schools. "Actually, the SAT gap is greater at Stanford than it is at Maryland," points out Geiger. The issue is probably one of coddling and special attention, plus the occasional swift kick. In other words, that "free ride" for athletes that irritates Adelman so much.

Our college basketball and football players did not create the system in which they function. They were recruited to it. That system has a responsibility to bend backward toward them. And they have a responsibility to themselves to respond.

No one is more eloquent on that point than Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson. "The biggest problem that I see in college athletics is that the kid is never made responsible for his own actions. And he knows that. And he plays it like a piano," said Thompson. "He knows that regardless of what happens with him, there is always somebody else that he can blame and the public will accept it . . . The colleges are part of the problem. The coaches are part of the problem. But nobody wants to go to the heart of the issue and say, 'This kid is a {bleep}. He needs to work harder.' "

Maryland's Geiger has a firm handle on the other end of the academic problem. "We have to find out what interests or excites our athletes as students. What leads them in a life-work direction?" said Geiger. "There's nothing wrong with an undecided major for two years. But the academic smorgasboard needs to be arrayed for them, so that they taste much more. They shouldn't be majoring in eligibility."

If Adelman's important report proves anything, it is that college basketball and football players, black and white, rural and urban, are capable of learning, of graduating, of holding decent jobs and of earning higher salaries than many -- and perhaps most -- of their peers. Given a chance -- and aggressive help -- they can and do catch up. Better than many of us would have thought.

The athlete may not arrive at college as a student, but it must be assumed that, in almost every case, he can be turned into one. And, if he refuses, if the smorgasboard of the world's ideas is laid before him and he yawns, then somebody in the athletic department needs to get up in his face, like John Thompson does, and tell him that the game he is really losing is his whole life.