It is difficult to build two big-time college basketball programs within a few blocks of one another. It is hard to fill two 5,000-seat gyms only a mile or so apart.

It is hard to smile at your chief rival when you must fight against him every day of the year for the same hot-shot recruits, plus many of the same fans. When you throw in a few last-second games, a couple of disputed calls, and a dash of jealousy, the pot begins to boil.

George Washington and Georgetown often wonder if Northwest Waahington is big enough for the both of them.

Georgetown visits George Washington tonight at 8 p.m. at Smith Center, but don't expect blood to muss up the pretty modern decor.

The Hoyas vs. Colonials basketball rivalry may indeed be one of the best local college athletic feuds in any sport. Georgetown leads in the series that goes back to 1916 by a 49-39 margin.

But it is not only the length of the series, or the high quality of the teams in recent years or even the heartstopping closeness of the last five encounters that make this battle of neighbors special.

These two schools know how to carry on a hate affair with class. Neither university offers courses in brass knuckle maintenance. Neither coach takes cheap shots at the other. As GW assistant coach Len Baltimore says, "They are our competitors, or rivals, not our enemies."

Several of the players on both teams have known each other since high school days. That only adds a special personal touch to the regular-season confrontations and makes the game a truly local battle.

Georgetown captain Larry Long has played against George Washington captain John Hollaran for seven years, going back to their sophomore years at Mackin and St. John's high schools respectively. Long and several other Hoyas, including high-scorer Derrick Jackson, are close friends of George Washington's other star, Leslie Anderson, who played at Bell.

"We play all summer at the same playgrounds," says Long, who scored 20 points against GW in the ECAC tournament championship game last season that made GU's season a triumphant one and GW's a bitter disappointment.

"We're all at Luzon (playground) if we want to be outside, at Jefferson Junior High if we want to be inside and not get cut up on the grave," says Long. "Les and I are good buddies. We usually play on the same team at the two forwards."

"All the players our age that ever played in this city are in those games at Luzon and Jefferson," says Anderson, GW's 15-point, nine-rebound mainstay. "Anybody you can name of college age is there." Plus a few out-of-towners like Jackson who stay in D.C. for those pickup games.

But there are always limits to the closeness that GU and GW players feel for each other. Do Long and Anderson, the summer teammates, pick each other up to drive to the games? Long laughs as though an unwritten rule has been violated. "Nah, no way," Long laughs. "We meet at the court."

Tonight, it will be the same old story - a toss-up game with the strongest of emotions involved. "It'll be something to see," says Long.

Almost certainly the game means more to George Washington. Georgetown's 18-5 season has been a success. The Hoyas have less to prove than the struggling 13-10 Colonials. GU is relaxed, having won five in a row. GW has lost five of its last seven.

Also, Georgetown probably will host both ECAC tournament games next week (which could earn the Hoyas a third straight NCAA berth) whether they beat GW or not.

"This is a big game because of the local interest," says Georgetown star guard Jackson. "We'd like to go into the ECAC tournament with a seven-game winning streak and into the NCAAs with nine in a row. Sure, it influences another team if you're on a hot streak."

But that rationale falls into the routine "every game's a big game" category. GU coach John Thompson says frankly, "I highlight our tournament games, not regular-season games. You don't want to go to the banquet table too often, then find out you're not hungry when it counts.

"The college scene is national, not local. That's how you're measured. We haven't pointed all year for GW. It's not life-or-death, though I'll admit once we go at it, that's probably what it'll look like."

GW players and coaches do not hide the trace of bile in their attitude when Georgetown in mentioned and look forward to tonight's game as perhaps their best chance for a redeemed season.

"We've already beaten Maryland, Navy and Catholic University," says GW coach Bob Tallent. "If we beat Georgetown, then only American U., whom we play Friday, stands between us and a perfect 5-0 sweep of all the local colleges."

In this year of local upsets - GW over Maryland, Navy over GU, AU over Navy - Geoge Washington has a chance to be the first team, except Maryland, to win all its games against area competition since 1958-59.

"Then we could truly call ourselves city champions," says GW coach and recruiter Baltimore. "Results in recent years have made Maryland and Georgetown appear somewhat better than us. If we go 5-0, many top local player have to think of us first in their considerations. Along with the new Smith Center and our new league (the Eastern Eight), it gives us three good selling points."

It has galled GW for two years that it's record has been almost identical to Georgetown's - 17-10 for GW to 18-10 in 1974-75 and 20-7 to GU's 21-7 last year - but GU has been regarded as more successful.

For the last five years GW has won the teams' regular season battles, the last two years by margins of four points and two points in overtime. But the last two seasons Georgetown has won a crucial ECAC tournament game from the Colonials on the way to the NCAAs.

"If we'd won that game last year, we'd have been the preseason pick for the top 20," says Baltimore. "We've missed a lot of attention and respectability by a very few points."

In recent years, since Thompson came to Georgetown, it has consistently been GW that ended up with the bent nose. Players on both teams know it.

"The reason they get more credit than we do is not just basketball," says GW's Anderson. "There's prestige and politics involved. Their coach is involved in the Olympics (assistant coach). That helps them. He's an area product. You hear people talking and it's always Georgetown ahead of us, but if you play the game, you know there's not much difference."