SYRACUSE, FEB. 13 -- Before its basketball game with Providence College Tuesday night, Syracuse University hosted a reception for top city officials at the Ernie Davis Room at the Carrier Dome -- the school's bubble-topped arena that dominates the local skyline.

An air of apprehension and uncertainty hung in the atmosphere as the local power elite ate from a buffet, according to some who attended. One of those present described the discussion as one of "mortal sin compared to venial sin."

All is not well in Syracuse these days.

The nation's seventh-ranked team, pride of the Central New York community, is under in-house and NCAA investigations for corruption.

Last December the Syracuse Post-Standard published a two-part report detailing allegations of payoffs to players, discount use of automobiles, free meals and other potential NCAA violations.

In this city, which lies in exactly the center of New York State, people are just recovering from their last brushes with national publicity: In 1988 the city's mayor went to jail for stealing millions, and later that year 35 Syracuse students died in the crash of Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

And so the nationally prominent basketball team, which in 1987 came within six seconds and one point of a national championship, has been a constant and welcome source of good news for Central New Yorkers over the last several years. It is a common thread that binds a region stretching 200 miles from Albany in the east to Rochester in the west and 125 miles from Watertown in the north to Binghamton in the south.

"Everyone who goes to that Dome to watch the basketball team feels ownership in that team," said Syracuse Mayor Thomas G. Young. "They feel they own it and are a part of it. And now they feel they have been hurt too."

The constant negative publicity flowing from the Post-Standard's articles, including reports in national publications and on ESPN, has galvanized much of the community into support for its favorite team and resentment toward the newspaper for taking on the program.

"Some people obviously have made some mistakes around the program," Coach Jim Boeheim said. "If that's the case, we'll see what happens. Whatever happens, we'll have to face it."

Clearly the incremental release of news stories, each bringing visits from national news organizations, is taking a toll on Boeheim and his players. Fans have been affected too.

Al Caza, who runs a barbershop across from City Hall, has had a front row seat for viewing local reaction.

"Everybody thinks it's a bunch of crap," said Caza, who has been cutting the hair of judges and business executives for 40 years. "The thing about Syracuse is that it's not the school's team, it's the city's team. When they screw around with the team, they're screwing around with the people."

Caza is counting more than the 163,000 city residents who take pride in seeing their community's name emblazoned on national television when the team plays.

There are half a million people in Central New York, and nearly 30,000 or so brave frigid temperatures -- some driving two hours -- to see the Orangemen play their brand of fast-break, dunk-in-your-face basketball. Their 28,000 or so season ticket holders could almost fill 1 1/2 Capital Centres.

"Everybody goes to the games," Caza said. "And {even} those that don't are fans."

And as in other communities, the Syracuse basketball players are local icons, appearing on television to promote programs such as the city's "Dunk Your Junk" litter campaign.

Along with being treated like royalty, which means eating at the best restaurants and being invited into the homes of local leaders, some players have had scrapes with the law that were magnified by the local media.

"It's kind of accepted that they do something for the school," said Pat Willcutts, a senior from Springfield, Mass. "There's kind of a lingering sentiment that scholarship players were getting a certain amount of favoritism. I think it was obvious when you saw players darting around in their nice cars."

Given their elevated status it is not surprising that there is little indignation directed at the basketball team. Instead, people are directing their resentment at the newspaper.

"To believe there would be no reaction would be naive," said Robert C. Atkinson, the Post-Standard executive editor. "It's disturbing to people that the local newspaper would not be totally supportive of the basketball program. In their eyes we have turned against the community."

Angry letters 50 to 1 against the newspaper, irate phone calls and 200 canceled subscriptions -- including Boeheim's -- help make Atkinson's point. The response to the messenger hasn't yet reached the proportions it did in Lexington, Ky., in 1985 when a series of articles in the Lexington Herald-Leader about the University of Kentucky's basketball program resulted in threats against the newspaper, deliverers being spit upon and an anti-Herald-Leader party thrown by a booster at a local country club.

One Syracuse radio station called a reporter's home telephone and broadcast the message that the number had been disconnected. "We have a role here," Atkinson said, explaining why the newspaper spent seven months looking into the program. "We are not an arm of the university. We report the good and the bad."

The "bad" has been going on for several weeks now, with last week's temporary suspension of players drawing media organizations from across the country to Syracuse. In addition to The Washington Post, representatives from the New York Times, USA Today, New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and others have been inquiring into the allegations.

Last month the school hired a pair of Kansas-based lawyers who specialize in representing colleges and universities alleged to have committed NCAA violations.

The university last Friday asked the head of the basketball team's booster organization, The Hardwood Club, to resign after lawyers uncovered NCAA rules violations.

And now the NCAA enforcement division appears to be poking its head into the matter. One of its part-time investigators has interviewed several former Syracuse players named in the initial newspaper report as part of a fact-checking process. One of those interviewed was former starter Matt Roe, who transferred to Maryland and now starts for the Terrapins.

The boosters, ranging from local physicians to prominent businessmen, have played a key role in helping to place players in well-paying summer jobs.

Before the NCAA banned the practice, The Hardwood Club placed basketball players with sponsor families, allowing players to leave campus and dine with a sponsor family.

The Post-Standard also described an off-campus network of boosters that provided legal advice and supplied some basic needs -- including automobiles and food.

Many of the basketball players drove cars leased from a car dealer who is a close friend of Boeheim's. The newspaper reported that several players received discounts on use of cars, an allegation the car dealer denies.

Without getting into details, Boeheim acknowledged in an interview following Tuesday night's win over Providence that his program had problems.

"It's difficult enough when you have to go through playing games," Boeheim said. "Now when you throw in worry and pressure, it's hard on the kids. After 10 minutes in a game you don't write your story. I think everyone should wait and see what the final result is."

That's not stopping people from speculating about Boeheim's future.

As the stories unfold, the talk on news stations, at restaurants and even in the locker room at the local YMCA has gotten around to whether Boeheim, 46, can weather the storm.

On the day Boeheim's team beat Providence for his 364th victory in 15 seasons as a college coach, two men talked at the Y about whether Kentucky's Rick Pitino or even Big East rival John Thompson of Georgetown would come to Syracuse.

Boeheim, who has been at Syracuse for 28 years as a player, assistant and head coach, shakes his head at the suggestion he might not be coaching at Syracuse a year from now.

"That's like asking me," he said, "if I'm going to the moon."