Some of the East Coast's best high school basketball teams will compete in the 19th annual Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School Christmas basketball tournament, which begins at 4 p.m. today.

Because the field is so talented, the host team is not optimistic about winning its own tournament.

This year's lineup consists of Holy Trinity and Archbishop Molloy, both of New York; Archbishop Carroll and Cardinal Doughterty, both of Pennsylvania; Mackin and Gonzaga High Schools of Washington; Loyola of Maryland, and O'Connell of Arlington.

O'Connell has never won its tournament, which is the longest-running one of its kind in the Washington metropolitan area. The Knights came close three years ago, but lost to Molloy in the semifinals, 52-50 at the final buzzer.

"We're very inexperienced, we're small and we have trouble with bigger teams," says O'Connell coach John Miller of his team, which has won three games and lost six this season. "We have no one over 6 feet 1 and no outstanding jumper.

"We have been in every game except against Garfield. We could have won a couple more if we had hit our layups and foul shots."

"O'Connell relies on full or three-quarter court pressure to compensate for its lack of size. The Knights use a four-corner offense, trying to control the pace of the game.

"We feel we have to stop bigger teams before they cross midcourt," Miller says. "Once they're in our end of the court they have a good chance of scoring."

Miller says his players have learned to accept a slow-down strategy since defeating a much larger Wakefield team recently, 25-23. At one point in that game, O'Connell froze the ball for six minutes.

Miller says his players are "looking forward to the tournament because they know if they get past the first round, anything can happen."

The key to O'Connell's chances, Miller says, is the health of captain Dennis Cook, who has been sidelined by a sinus condition and a sprained ankle. The knights lost all three games Cook missed.

"He doesn't score much," says Miller of Cook "but he is a leader." Cook is expected to play in the tournament.

The O'Connell tournament has long been known as a showcase for high school players who are outstanding college prospects, and this year is no exception.

Holy Trinity, the tournament favorite, is led by 6-foot-7 Matt Doherty, who has already signed a letter of intent to attend the University of North Carolina.

"Believe it or not, he plays guard at that size because he's such a good ball handler," Miller says. "He's considered one of the top 15 high school players in the country.

Archbishop Molloy features Tom Sheehan, an all-New York City guard.Loyola is led by Cecil Rucker.

Gonzaga, undefeated in three games this season, builds its offense around 6-foot-4 Tom Sluby. "They just throw the ball up and Sluby dunks it for them," says Miller of Gonzaga's favorite play.

Miller expresses no regret that the tournament field has never been packed with lower-caliber teams, thus improving O'Connell's chances of winning." The purpose is to bring the best teams possible to the Washington area," Miller says. "It has become the tournament to be in."

Game times for tonight, tomorrow and Saturday are 4 p.m., 5:45 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. O'Connell is located at 6600 Little Falls Road, Arlington.