THERE SOON may come a day when Dennis Scott and Steve Hood grace magazine covers and television screens. But for a little while yet, you can catch their acts just around the corner.

Get a move on, and you'll be able to brag that you knew them when. And you'll also treat yourself to sport at its basic best -- high school basketball played by some of the finest young talent in the country.

There has always been something particularly vital about high school sports, but basketball has a special immediacy because it's played in the close confines of a gym.

The sweat practically puddles at your feet. You can hear the coach in the timeout huddle -- if the crowd isn't blowing the roof off with the latest cheering duel led by a bunch of crazy guys in surfing trunks and mismatched Hawaiian shirts. The nervous cheerleader gnawing on her lip is almost within arm's reach. And everyone cares -- desperately.

The added bonus hereabouts is that the quality of play matches the passion. Scott and Hood are just two among a crop of players who, according to DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten, are making this "a wonderful year for talent."

Flint Hill coach Stewart Vetter, whose team is ranked No. 1 in the country, agrees: "We've played everywhere this year, from Cincinnati to Hawaii to Arkansas. But all in all, the players in this area were the best."

There are three weeks left in the regular high school season, to be followed by the playoffs, which conclude in mid-March. So there's still time to check them out. Here's a list of some of the top high school players -- reflecting an informal poll of area coaches, journalists and college scouts -- and some coming games where you can catch them and their teams in action. (The team records reflect games throgh Tuesday night.)

DENNIS SCOTT -- Forward, Flint Hill. A 6-foot-7 all-America described recently by Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins as the best player to come out of the D.C. area since NBA all-star Adrian Dantley. Scott, a junior, is the top scorer in Virginia with a 22.7 average and has led Flint Hill to an 18-0 record and the No. 1 ranking in the country.

FLINT HILL -- vs. Oak Hill (Va.), February 21, 8:15 at Georgetown's McDonough Arena, 37th & O streets NW.

STEVE HOOD -- Forward, DeMatha. One of the best outside shooters in the area, Hood is averaging 18.9 points and eight rebounds. The 6-6 senior is also a topnotch defensive player, and has teamed with 6-1 guard John Gwynn (19.6 points) and 6-9 sophomore Jerrod Mustaf (12 points) to help the second- ranked Stags to a 21-1 record and the nation's No. 5 spot.

DeMATHA -- at Mackin, 2200 California St. NW, Friday, 7:30; at Springbrook, 201 Valley Brook Dr., Silver Spring, Saturday, 7; vs. Gonzaga at Catholic University's DuFour Center, 600 McCormick Ave. NE, Wednesday, 7:15.

MARK TILLMON -- Guard, Gonzaga. A topnotch shooter and swift playmaker, Tillmon is averaging 22.2 points per game to lead the Purple Eagles to a 18-2 record and the No. 3 ranking in the area. The 6-1 senior's best performances have come against some of Gonzaga's toughest opponents, such as the 29 points he scored in a 59-54 loss to DeMatha last month.

GONZAGA -- vs. Good Counsel at Gonzaga, 19 I St. NW, Friday, 5:15; vs. DeMatha at Catholic's DuFour Center, 600 McCormick Ave. NE, Wednesday, 7:15; at Ireton, 201 Cambridge Road, Alexandria, February 25, 7:15.)

CARLOS THOMAS -- Guard, McKinley Tech. Scored 55 points in two games and was named the most valuable player in the Emsley Invitational in Buffalo earlier this year. Thomas, a senior who averages 17.2 points, has also had some other very big games, scoring a total of 64 points in back-to wins over Carroll and Northwestern earlier this year. He has teamed with 6-7 junior forward Anthony Tucker (17.1), the MVP in the Mount Vernon holiday tournament, to help the Trainers to a 17-3 record.

McKINLEY -- vs. Wilson at McKinley, 2nd & T streets NE, Friday, 8; at Coolidge, Fifth & Tuckerman streets NW, February 27, 8.

BOB POLLARD -- Center, Ireton. A 6-8 senior whose 18.4 average has made Ireton's entrance into the highly competitive Metro Conference much easier. Pollard, who also averages eight rebounds, has led the Cardinals to a 15-4 record.

IRETON -- vs. Carroll at Ireton, 201 Cambridge Rd., Alexandria, Friday, 7:30; vs. Gonzaga at Ireton, February 25, 7:15.

MARK KARVER -- Forward, Bethesda-Chevy Chase. Among the Montgomery County leaders in virtually every offensive category. Karver, a senior, has twice posted double figures in points, rebounds and assists in a single game, including last week's 26-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist performance against Rockville. Karver shot 12-of- 16 from the floor in that game and added five assists. The Barons are ranked ninth in the area with a 14-2 record.

BETHESDA-CHEVY CHASE -- at Wheaton, 12601 Dalewood Dr., Friday, 7.

STEVE CARROLL -- Guard, Lee. Carroll, a 6-1 senior, is the Gunston District's leading scorer with a 19- point average. A deft passer, Carroll has helped the Lancers to a an 8-8 record.

LEE -- at Mount Vernon, 8515 Old Mount Vernon Rd., Alexandria, Friday, 8.

WALTER PALMER -- Center, Washington-Lee. Although just sixth among Great Falls District scorers with a 14.3 average, the 6-11 senior is one of the area's top rebounders (11 per game) and shot-blockers. Teaming with his 6-9 sophomore brother, Crawford, Palmer has helped the Generals to a 10-5 record.

WASHINGTON-LEE -- vs. Yorktown at Washington-Lee, 1300 North Quincy St., Arlington, Friday, 8; vs. Herndon at Washington-Lee, February 21, 8. AMONG THE WOMEN

There are also a number of outstanding young women playing high school basketball. Here are some singled out by the experts.

CHRISTY WINTERS -- Center, South Lakes. A 6-foot-1 senior, Winters is Northern Virginia's leading scorer with a 23.3 average and 14 rebounds. Considered one of the top women players in the country, she has led South Lakes to a 17-0 record and the area's No. 2 ranking.

SOUTH LAKES -- vs. Herndon at South Lakes, 11400 South Lakes Dr., Reston, Friday, 8; vs. Lee at South Lakes, Tuesday, 8.

KAMMY BROWN & TANDERIA GREEN -- Forward and center, respectively, H.D. Woodson. These two have combined to make H.D. Woodson (18-1) the top-ranked team in the area and the ninth-rated team in the country. The 5-10 Brown averages 16.3 points and nine rebounds, while Green, also 5-10, is scoring at a 20.1 clip.

H.D. WOODSON -- at Theodore Roosevelt, 4301 13th St. NW, Friday, 6:15. GYMS DANDY

Of course, any true basketball buff knows that it takes more than topnotch players to make the game complete. It takes dedicated, inventive fans, a sense of tradition and a gym with character. Luckily, you can have it all. Here's where:

Although it's among the smallest gyms around, DeMatha's facility in Hyattsville has managed to produce winners in the 1980s while retaining the feel of an era long since passed. Doors at one end of the floor lead directly into adjoining classrooms, the lack of space forces the players to sit in the first row of bleachers with the fans, and championship banners covering one wall keep the past ever-present.

Claustrophobia, often compounded by the pep band, can be as big a threat to the opponent as a 1-3-1 zone.

DeMatha can seat approximately 800 ("If we use a shoehorn," says coach Wooten), but one-quarter of that space is taken up by students who, dressed in everything from camouflage clothing to hula skirts, stand for the entire game. Anyway, arriving early to ensure a seat is no problem since the DeMatha junior varsity, which begins its games at 5:15, is more exciting to watch than many schools' varsities.

Montgomery Blair's gym in Silver Spring often offers the drama and excitement found at DeMatha, but with the added advantage of more space. Blair's gym, built in the early 1950s, holds close to 2,500 in its two tiers and houses one of the most consistently competitive programs around. The facility, which is often rented by teams wishing to accommodate larger crowds, was sold out for DeMatha's 59-54 win over Gonzaga earlier this season.

Catholic University's DuFour Center, which opened last fall and seats 2,400, has already become a second home to several area high school teams. The Coca-Cola Classic in December featured some of the top teams in the country, including Gonzaga and DeMatha, and those two teams will play their Metro Conference rematch there on Wednesday. Clean, spacious and well-lit, the DuFour Center also has ample parking.

Although its gym is too small to play games in, Flint Hill has one of the most dedicated followings in the area. While the student body numbers only about 400, the Falcons play their home games at either George Mason University's gym or at Georgetown's McDonough Arena, and often come close to filling them. A VIEWER'S GUIDE

Finally, you need to remember that attending a high school game involves more than just showing up. Here are several basic rules you would do well to heed.

* Make sure that you sit in the section that supports the team youre cheering for. Failing that, make sure that you cheer for the team supported by the section you're sitting in. Remember, there are more of them than you.

* Sit in the back row, especially at smaller gyms like DeMatha. The bleachers are several inches deeper and the wall provides a nice backrest. Your spine will thank you.

* Bring a cushion, because the standard high school bleachers have been proved to harden as the game progresses.

* Never sit in the front row (A). Many a front-row patron has "taken the charge" at a high school game. It is not a pretty sight.

* Never sit in the front row (B). In case you'd forgotten, the point of going to a high school game is often to be seen without looking like youre trying to be seen. So at gyms like Blair's, the aisle between the team benches and the bleachers is more like a promenade than a passageway. The students, who parade casually back and forth throughout the entire game, can "block out" better than most centers.

Doug Cress last wrote for Weekend on table tennis.