Like basketball coaches everywhere, John Wiley Sr. was trying to pump up his team 10 minutes before last Wednesday's game.

He cautioned his players to take only good shots. He urged them to make their free throws. He closed with a little Q and A that the team obviously had heard many times.

"You play defense with your . . . what?" the coach asked.

"Feet!" replied the dozen young men camped in the weight room at Prince George's Community College in Largo.

"Okay, 'PG' on three! Let's go!" the coach said.

"One . . . two . . . three . . . PG!" the team chanted in unison. The players formed a conga line and burst onto the floor of Novak Field House to face the visiting Falcons of Montgomery College-Takoma Park.

This is the moment that every basketball player loves, and all remember. Pure anticipation. Pure exhilaration. Pure strut-your-stuff in front of the roaring crowd.

But at PGCC last Wednesday, the roaring crowd consisted of . . .

Fifty-two people.

Including one sleeping infant.

Eight cheerleaders were on hand, but no one paid much attention to them. There were no scouts in the grandstand, no celebrities in the first three rows dressed to kill, no promotions at halftime sponsored by famous companies. TV and radio were conspicuous by their absence.

The big time, this isn't. In fact, community college basketball has long been known as the "tweener league." That's "tweener" as in somewhere between high school and the glamorous four-year college teams you see on the networks.

Yet an important lesson is being taught -- and learned -- at PGCC and places like it.

If a player needs a second chance, either academically or athletically or both, this is where he'll get it. And if a player gets serious about himself and his game -- often for the first time -- he can still land at a four-year college. He might get a scholarship, to boot.

So, in his own way, Wiley is doing more to shape young men than his famous counterparts. In his 18 years as head coach at PGCC, he and his 14-year assistant, Joel Dearring, have helped dozens of players go on to get four-year degrees and head down successful paths as adults.

As Wiley says, PGCC is a place for "late bloomers." But it's not a place for basketball players who aren't serious about studying.

"You're a student-athlete here," said the coach, whose son, John Wiley Jr., is head coach at Bowie High School and whose daughter, Jeri, is head coach of the women's team at Radford University.

"We look for a kid who's interested in education and interested in getting a good recommendation from the coach. A student has to be committed," Coach Wiley said. Some students who are emerging from high school "are just not ready."

A perfect example is a 6-foot-3 guard on this year's Owls, Louis Benson.

He graduated from Meade High School in Anne Arundel County in June and headed off to a two-year college in Midland, Tex. The idea was to get his grades and his game up to a point where he could attract a major college scholarship.

But a fellow player ragged Louis about his roots. "He said I wasn't nothing if I didn't come from Area Code 915 [West Texas]," Louis said, as he dressed following Wednesday's game.

So Louis punched him.

"I got kicked straight out," he said. He returned to Maryland, and Coach Wiley took him on.

According to Louis, PGCC has given him the platform he needed to "work on my skills. I'm getting better, but I ain't to where I want to be."

Still, his mother comes to every game, which she couldn't have done if he had stayed in Texas. Louis said he hopes that the attention the Owls are attracting (they won 15 of their first 16 games this season) will pave the road for him to "play at the next level."

Coach Wiley, an eternally optimistic man with a broad smile, knows that he will never run a bright-lights program at PGCC.

Because the team plays many home games at the awkward hour of 5 p.m., it can't attract big crowds. Nor is the atmosphere anywhere near what it would be at MCI Center.

Ten minutes before Wednesday's game, boys in street clothes were shooting three-pointers. Referees were chatting with acquaintances in the stands. As the game began, players from each team shook hands with the opposing coach as they were introduced -- a sportsmanlike touch that would never happen when Duke plays Maryland. There was close to zero electricity in the air.

But the game itself produced plenty. PGCC scored on a three-point shot after just five seconds had elapsed. The Owls steadily widened their lead from 13-6 to 24-11 to 38-20. They led by 51-25 at the half. The final score was a crushing 113-52.

Wiley has never sent a player to the NBA, although current NBA superstar Steve Francis played for PGCC's arch-rival, Allegany Community College of Cumberland. But to Wiley, counting NBA players is not the true test.

"Community colleges have an image problem," he said. "People think of them as a last resort. But I think of them as a place for students who need a breather. We provide the opportunity for a student to get himself together and go on to a Georgetown or a Maryland."

How do the players see it? David Bailey, a 6-foot-8 center for PGCC, said he couldn't be spending a more profitable year.

"It's a tough level when you see certain [opposing] teams," he said. "The talent is there." Tweener ball "is not as soft as everybody thinks it is."