In recent years, Washington's two dominant college-basketball teams - Maryland and Georgetown - have each politely pretended that the other did not exist.

That changed this week.

For the first time, Maryland clearly showed its fear that it is slipping out of the game's upper echelon.

Maryland athletic director Jim Kehoe tried to strong-arm the National Invitation Tournament selection committee into scheduling a game that the Terp brass wanted badly: Maryland vs. Georgetown at Cole Field House.

With GU in a crippled state, it was an excellent chance for Maryland to put the Hoyas in their place.

Maryland found out how much eight defeats this season and two striaght years without an NCAA bid can erode a team's influence when the NIT offered an "eat-crow" opening game against Old Dominion. In Norfolk, no less.

Maryland chose to hide behind its worn reputation and duck the NIK bid rather than let its yound team prove, or more likely, disprove its talents on a hostile cout.

While Maryland was running scared and giving the impression of a spoiled bully that will only play on its own terms, Georgetown was finally getting up on its hind legs to scream about second-class basketball citizenship.

While Maryland has always kept John Thompson's budding program at arm's length, damning the inconsistent Hoyas with faint antiseptic praise, Georgetown has persistently bitten its tongue rather than so much as mention the word "Maryland."

"I don't even like to mention Maryland's name," said GU assistant Bill Stein this week. "They get enough attention without me helping them."

Georgetown, which thinks of itself as an ivied hilltop, simply does not believe in showing off is winning basketball team like some suburban hosewife wearing a chinchilla coast to a PTA meeting.

But this week Thompson finally finally hollered, announcing, "All we read and hear about is how Maryland has turned down a bid to play in the same tournament we're in.

"Who cares? We're the ones who are playing . . . "

When Washington basketball fans look back on this week's Maryland-Georgetown-NIT fiasco, they will not remember the basketball that was played. Georgetown's NIT opening loss to VPI, 83-79, was typical of the lackluster performance that closed the season for both Terps and Hoyas.

Rather, this week marked the escalation of the Maryland-Georgetown cold war into a hotter sort of confrontation.

With the graduation of Maryland Olympian Steve Sheppard, it would be hard to imagine two teams in the same area more nearly on a par in terms of raw talent than the 19-8 Terps and 19-9 Hoyes.

The two teams are almost mirror images of each other.

Both have a returning senior guard Maryland's Brad Davis and Georgetown's Derrick Jackson. They're about equal.

Both teams base their hopes of improvement, for now, on two Washington products - one guard, one forward - who will be sophomores. Maryland's Jo Jo Hunter and Billy Bryant and GU's John Duren and Craig Shelton grew up playing against each other, were both universally recruited and could hardly bemore even in potential.

Each team has three front-court men who could best be called both adequate and disappointing. None, it now appears, will ever be a dominant player.

Maryland's Larry Gibson and GU's Ed Hopkins are a pair of skinny Baltimore centers with similar stats and similar physical limitations. The Terp's Mike Davis and the Hoyas' Tommy Scates are monsters with no polish. They are intermittently intimidating, more often awful.

Lawrence Boston and GU's Al Dutch are good open-shooting corner men, but neither has lived up to advance billing. Both teams even have a 6-4 guard-forward who has never found a college position - GU's Steve Martin and Maryland's moody Turk Tillman.

It is a mark of where the programs have been in the recent past - Maryland in the top five. Georgetown at the bottom - that the Hoyas think next year could be the best in their history (with the proper JUCO center) while Maryland hates to think of a future without super-recruit Albert King.

Now that the two previously cautious rivals are finally looking at each other, eye to eye and dagger to dagger, the confrontation is a faschinating contrast.

Both coaches are master recruiters, although from diametrically opposite schools, and both are constantly second-guessed for their tactical decisions.

Maryland's Lefty Driesell is a saturation recruiter, blitzing the youth of his choice with visits and promises of every big-time delight.

"We can't spend $16,000 to get one kid," says GU's Stein. "Our whole recruiting budget may not be that much."

While Driesell tries to become a pal, Thompson sells dignity, offering his players a stern, towering disciplinarian of a father, one who promises love and spankings in equal doses. Compared to Georgetown, Maryland's players are outspoken.

Georgetown's athletes are meek to a fault, clearing every sentence with the outspoken Thompson, who invariably does 95 per cent of the talking for the team.

While Driesell is famous for his testiness when cross-questioned, Thompson says. "My critics in the stands sit with their backs to the wall. I accept the fact that my back will always be exposed . . . I guess when I finally learn how to coach, we'll be pretty dangerous."

Driesell's detractors say he doesn't play the right people (the "where's-Brian-Magid" school). Thompson's second-guessers say he uses so many players neither he nor they know who's in the game or what they're supposed to do. "John must have a number system just to get 'em all in the game," said a local head coach.

"He can burn out the buzzer at the scorer's table in a half."

For both Maryland and Georgetown, this week's brush with the NIT - to decide once and for all which is the nation's 33rd best team - ended the season on a bitter note.

Maryland got a black eye for not playing; Georgetown got one for joining in the fun. The week left no winners. Maryland got a new image as a cowardly lion, while Georgetown exposed its envy.