Three of the five recruits on the Howard University men's basketball team have been withheld from practice while their eligibility is reviewed, sources familiar with the university's internal athletics investigation confirmed yesterday.

Sitting out are Donte Lincoln, a 6-foot-6 junior forward from Los Angeles Technical Trade College, 6-5 forward Darren Kennedy, a transfer from Monmouth (N.J.) University, and 6-9 freshman center Nick Dodson, from Los Angeles's Verbum Dei high school.

Lincoln's recruitment is a central focus of the internal investigation being conducted by Robert Clayton, a New Orleans-based lawyer hired by the university. Howard's baseball and women's basketball programs also are part of the probe, a report on which eventually will be forwarded to the NCAA.

Lincoln and Dodson had been expected to contend for starting positions on a team that was 2-25 last season under first-year coach Kirk Saulny. The Bison open their regular season a week from tonight at DePaul, and it is unclear when any of the three will be able to practice. (Kennedy, as a transfer student, is ineligible to compete until the first semester ends.)

Sources said the inquiry is looking into Lincoln's academic credentials and a recruiting trip he made to the university in late February. The inquiry is seeking to determine whether NCAA rules concerning academic fraud were violated, whether spending in excess of NCAA limits occurred during the recruiting visit and whether staff members committed ethical violations. Kennedy was Lincoln's student host for the visit and sources said he would have attended a dinner that is a major element of the internal probe.

Saulny, in a brief phone interview yesterday, declined to comment on any aspect of the investigation. Dodson's situation is unrelated to the internal investigation, sources said. A source said the NCAA Clearinghouse would not accept a course that Dodson took during the summer of 1998 at an adult high school in California. Without credit for the course, Dodson does not have the minimum required package of core academic courses to qualify for a scholarship or to compete or practice as a freshman. Howard has requested a waiver for Dodson from the NCAA.

Special correspondent Jeff Seidel contributed to this report.