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IT'S DIFFICULT to draw any hard conclusions from the first month of the college basketball season. Sure, there has been an intriguing non-conference match-up or two, but for the most part, the first few weeks are a time for gobbling up cupcakes and building up a gaudy and misleading record for the pollsters.

Is Syracuse, which struggled to beat Canisius and Towson State, really as good as its 10-0 record? The Orangemen seem to be unbeaten every year at this time, but it's not until they venture into the Big East schedule that we're able to distinguish one SU team from another. Is Ohio State a legitimate powerhouse? Is Nebraska, the surprise of the nation, for real?

Over the next week or so, we'll be ankle-deep in conference play and it'll be easier to sort out the impostors from the true contenders. For example, we'll find out a lot Wednesday at the Carrier Dome when Syracuse and St. John's put their unbeaten records on the line. And that same night, we'll learn more about Rick Pitino's Kentucky team when it hits the road to play a fine Georgia squad.

Of course, there is at least one thing that's become crystal clear. Nevada-Las Vegas, newly aroused after being reinstated for this year's NCAA tournament, is easily the class of the nation. Jerry Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels (5-0) are even better than they were a year ago, when they blew out Duke in the most one-sided championship game in history.

There's one obvious reason: UNLV has its top four players (Stacey Augmon, Larry Johnson, Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony) back, and all four are legitimate NBA prospects.

The other reason is George Ackles. Ackles, a 6-foot-10 senior center, started 27 games for UNLV two seasons ago but sat out last season after breaking his wrist in a summer pickup game. Ackles is a better athlete than last year's center, David Butler.

In its first five games, UNLV has gone about its business with frightening precision. The Rebels have won by an average of 35.4 points, and they haven't been doing it against Brooklyn and Liberty. They hammered a good, if somewhat overrated, Michigan State team by 20. They drilled a decent Florida State squad by 32. And in their most awesome display of all, they embarrassed an unbeaten Princeton team last week, 69-35.

And the Rebels are doing it all despite the perpetual shroud of the NCAA's investigative team, which recently completed its probe into UNLV's courtship of New York City schoolboy legend Lloyd Daniels four years ago.

"What does Syracuse do after the story breaks there about alleged violations?" Tarkanian crowed last week. "They beat Towson State by only five points. If we go a day without controversy, it's like New Year's Eve around here. But we just go out and play. Only these kids could do it. They're incredible."

It isn't all that incredible. Considering that the NCAA banned the Rebels from this year's tournament and then allowed them back in, it's not surprising if Tarkanian's players don't exactly live in fear of that hallowed institution.

Texas A&M could be in trouble

UNLV isn't the only school in hot water with the NCAA's investigative arm. Texas A&M could be in deep trouble if allegations published recently in the Syracuse Post-Standard turn out to be true.

In its expose on the Syracuse basketball program, the Post-Standard ran a separate story on the circumstances of Tony Scott's transfer to A&M last spring. According to the story, first-year head coach Kermit Davis gave cash and other incentives to Rob Johnson, a New York City talent scout, who steered Scott to Texas A&M.

If Johnson was indeed paid off to recruit Scott, the A&M program could be facing major sanctions.

Nerves are also on edge at Loyola Marymount, where testimony in a wrongful-death suit filed by the family of the late Hank Gathers has uncovered possible improprieties in that program. Lucille Gathers, mother of the late Loyola star, said her son received $2,000 in cash from a prominent booster, Albert Gersten.

If her testimony is true, Loyola Marymount will face sanctions from the NCAA. Because Gathers died before the NCAA tournament, the school probably wouldn't have to return any of the $800,000 it received for its participation in the tourney.

Watch out for the Phoenix

If you're looking to adopt an obscure national sleeper, you might consider Wisconsin-Green Bay. For one thing, the team has one of the best nicknames around -- the Phoenix. They went 24-8 last year and are the favorite in the Mid-Continent Conference. Last weekend, the Phoenix upset DePaul, 57-56, in the Old Style Classic tournament.

They also have a family touch. Tony Bennett, the team's star 6-foot guard, is the son of head coach Dick Bennett, who is pretty good with a quip: "My players are small and skinny," Dick said. "In fact, one of them is playing only because he's my wife's son."

Around college basketball

Missouri's fortunes should improve now that junior guard Anthony Peeler has regained his academic eligibility. The Tigers were 3-4 in Peeler's absence and had their home-court winning streak snapped at 34 games . . . Today's most intriguing matchup is North Carolina State at East Tennessee State. It's the return to Johnson City for Les Robinson, who left East Tennessee to succeed Jim Valvano as the Wolfpack's head coach. . . . New Mexico State head coach Neil McCarthy on UNLV's prospects of losing: "Oh sure. They can get the measles and lose four, five starters and lose a game. A lot of things can happen." . . . Shawn Bradley, Brigham Young's 7-6 freshman center, tied David Robinson's NCAA record by blocking 14 shots against Eastern Kentucky -- only after BYU officials reviewed the films and added two blocks to his total.

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