By Greg McCune
CHICAGO (Reuters) - At least 70 percent of major college football and men's basketball athletes obtain a college degree, NCAA figures show for the first time, although traditional football powerhouse Oklahoma and basketball powers Connecticut and Indiana lag in academic performance.
The rates, for athletes who entered college in 2005 and took a maximum six years to graduate, are included in the NCAA's annual report on the graduation rates of student athletes released on Thursday.
The report said 74 percent of men's basketball players earned a degree, a gain of 6 percentage points from a year ago.
The graduation rate among major college football players reached 70 percent, up slightly from a year ago.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said he was pleased with the progress, although the graduation rates of those in the two sports with the highest revenue are still lower than that of the general male college population.
He said a college degree is important because only 1.3 percent of college basketball players go on to professional ranks such as the National Basketball Association, while 1.6 percent of football players reach the elite level such as the National Football League.
"There is some illusion out there that being a great athlete and being a great student is incompatible," Emmert said.
In recent years, the NCAA has cracked down on schools whose athletes perform poorly in the classroom. In June, the traditional powerhouse UConn men's basketball team was barred from postseason play in 2012-13 after poor academic results.
Only 11 percent of UConn men's basketball players graduated from the class starting in 2005, the NCAA said.
Among the USA Today preseason Top 25 men's basketball rankings, the lowest graduation rates were Florida with 17 percent, Wisconsin at 40 and No. 1 ranked Indiana at 43 percent. Duke, Kansas and Notre Dame had perfect 100 percent graduation rates among ranked teams. Last season's NCAA champion Kentucky had a graduation rate of 78 percent.
Oklahoma had the lowest graduation rate among the Bowl Championship Series Top 25 ranked football teams at 47 percent. Other ranked teams with low rates were South Carolina and Florida State with 55 percent, the University of Southern California at 57 percent and Texas and Kansas State at 58 percent.
Notre Dame, Rutgers and Stanford had the highest graduation rates among ranked football teams, all reaching at least 90 percent. No. 1 ranked Alabama had a rate of 75 percent.
The graduation rates for all NCAA schools are searchable at http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/newmedia/public/rates/index.html
(Reporting By Greg McCune; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)