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IT'S SENSIBLE. It's fair. It would be a great incentive for college athletes to do well in class and make consistent progress toward a degree. In fact, it makes such sense that you can almost be sure the NCAA's member schools will vote against it.

"It" is Proposition 80, a piece of legislation that would allow Proposition 48 victims four years of eligibility instead of the previously mandated three years -- provided they are making satisfactory advancement toward an undergraduate degree.

The legislation, which was proposed by the Big East Conference, will be put before the NCAA presidents next month during their annual convention in Nashville, Tenn. If passed, it would apply to any current undergraduate who lost his freshman eligibility under the original terms of Proposition 48, which requires athletes to meet certain core course requirements and score at least 700 on the SAT tests or a 15 on the ACT.

Under the terms of Proposition 80, any such player who maintains a 2.0 grade-point average and completes 96 credit hours would regain the fourth year of athletic eligibility.

"I'm very much in favor of it," Canisius head coach Marty Marbach said, "and not just because we have two Proposition 48 players in the program. There's been a lot of talk about it and one thing that bothers me is people will vote against it because they're afraid they'll have to play against these players for an additional year.

"But the real question should be a concern for that student/athlete. I just believe if you prove you can do the work, you should be able to regain that lost year."

As Marbach suggested, the proposed rule would help his program in the short term. Nixon Dyall, a junior forward and one of his top players, would become a sophomore if the legislation went through. Tony Maroney, a 7-foot freshman from Lockport, would have four years of eligibility left after sitting out this year.

In the long run, though, Canisius, Niagara and other MAAC schools would benefit less than schools in other conferences if the rule were changed. Under MAAC rules, a school is allowed just two Prop 48 athletes over a four-year period -- that's two athletes in the entire athletic program.

Still, changing the rule is a good idea. The Prop 48 regulations are harsh enough as it is. A Prop 48 player can't practice with the team. He can't travel. He doesn't even get his athletic scholarship anymore. The NCAA stripped that away two years ago when they passed the controversial Proposition 42, which required Prop 48 athletes to pay their own way until they become eligible to compete.

It seems only right for the schools to tack that year on at the end, assuming the player has proven he can make it in the classroom. After all, that's the one thing the SATs cannot measure -- a young person's determination to learn and develop as a student. Many college athletes come from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds, and historically score poorly on standardized tests.

Colleges use the talents of these kids to fund their athletic programs and, in the case of the larger schools, to maintain the flow of big-time TV dollars. They should do everything possible to keep them on course toward a degree. If the prospect of a fourth year of eligibility keeps the Prop 48 player motivated on the court and off, it's worth changing the rule. Many major-college athletes, burdened by the time constraints of their sport, don't finish their degrees in four years, anyway.

"The average student in this country takes 5.2 years to graduate," said Temple head coach John Chaney, a frequent critic of Proposition 48 and its various offshoots. "(Proposition 48) is the biggest fraud that's ever been perpetrated on the athletic community."

Like Chaney, I felt Proposition 48 was ill-advised from the start, that it discriminated against poor, minority college athletes while failing to confront the much bigger problem of inadequate education at the lower levels. But if it must exist, at least the fourth year of eligibility should be restored to deserving athletes.

"It's a sensible approach, the right approach," said Chaney. "It gives youngsters a high level of aspiration toward getting a degree. But I doubt if the NCAA will have compassion. It seems there is very little compassion for anything today."

Orange present a problem

It will be interesting to see how the NCAA reacts to accusations published this week in the Syracuse Post-Standard, which spent seven months interviewing former players about alleged misconduct in the Syracuse basketball program over the past seven seasons.

Among the many allegations uncovered by the Post-Standard was that Bill Rapp, a prominent car dealer and close friend of head coach Jim Boeheim, had made regular cash gifts of $50 to Syracuse players over the years.

Rapp has been the subject of previous investigations by the Syracuse newspapers, and his cozy relationship with Boeheim and the Syracuse sports programs is well-known. Five years ago, when Rapp was the focus of another newspaper probe, the school made assurances that Rapp would distance himself from the basketball program. Apparently, that never happened.

Now we'll see if the NCAA pursues these new charges with any vigor. Syracuse, with its gleaming Carrier Dome and 30,000-plus basketball crowds, is the centerpiece of big-time college basketball in the East. It would be a severe blow to the college game if SU ever wound up on probation and was prohibited from appearing on television for any length of time.

In other words, don't be surprised if the NCAA gives Syracuse a mere slap on the wrist, or dismisses the Post-Standard's investigation altogether.

Big battle of little guards

Eleventh-ranked Oklahoma puts its 51-game home winning streak on the line this afternoon (3:45 p.m., Channel 4) when it hosts ninth-rated Duke at the Noble Center at Norman. While pitting top schools from the Big Eight and Atlantic Coast conferences, the game will also offer an intriguing matchup of small, quick point guards -- OU's Brent Price and the Blue Devils' Bobby Hurley.

Price, a 6-1 transfer from South Carolina (and brother of NBA star Mark Price), is averaging 25 points a game for Billy Tubbs' Sooners. A week ago against Loyola Marymount, Price had 56 points, nine assists, nine steals and two blocked shots. He made 11 of 19 three-point attempts and became one of five players in Big Eight history to score 50 points in a game.

Today, Price could find himself matched against Hurley, a terrific man-to-man defender who rarely allows his man an unchallenged shot or an unimpeded route to the basket. Hurley is also a keen penetrator and passer, though he has a tendency to force the issue at times.

An interesting subplot: Price tried out for the Goodwill Games last summer in Colorado Springs. He played well, but didn't make the team. Hurley did. The coach who made the decision? Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

Spartans over-reliant on Smith

Michigan State has been the greatest disappointment in the nation thus far. Picked by many to challenge for the national title, the Spartans have struggled to a 5-3 start. The main reason is an over-reliance on All-American Steve Smith, who has scored at least 20 points in each game while no other teammate has scored more than 17.

Smith scored 38 points, more than half his team's total, in the 24th-ranked Spartans' 74-61 victory Thursday night over Central Michigan.

"If they had scored 120 points and Smith had 38, I'd be upset," said Central Michigan coach Charlie Coles. "But when they get 74 and one guy has 38, then they have a problem."

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