All college basketball coaches relish those few games on the schedule that offer a chance for instantly increased respect if they win, while risking little damage to their prestige if they lose.

Both Catholic and Navy were busy yesterday laying their traps with just such prospects in sight.

The Cardinals visit a tall, but inexperienced bunch of American University Eagles tonight at Ft. Myer, while the Midshipmen prepare to host classy Princeton in a matchup between two of the brainiest, most orderly teams in America. Both appointments with opportunity are scheduled to tipoff at 8 p.m.

By contrast, local powers Georgetown and George Washington face just the opposite kind of situation tonight. They have little to gain, even in victory.

Georgetown hosts Dickinson, one of the few cream puffs left on its strong, balanced schedule, at 8 p.m., while GW travels to Richmond to pull the legs off a bunch of green Spiders, who have been decimated by graduation.

Catholic's Jack Kvancz was particularly delighted yesterday, still sky high hours after a 66-61 upset over Howard.

"Last year we didn't beat a single area team," he chirped, "and now we have a chance to beat two of 'em in three days. If we do, maybe I'll retire for the rest of the year.

"We just had a great, exhilerating game against Howard," bubbled the scrappy Kvancz. "Our gym was packed, everybody screaming. It was everything that basketball's about at the level of our program. For a game between two 'mid-majors,' or whatever you'd call us, it had anything you could ask for."

On paper CU seems to lack everything except heart, AU, on the other hand, has an inside duo of 6-foot-10 Howie Lassoff and 6-8 Joe Mitchell, that CU can't approach for altitude.

"The whole game will come down to the boards," said Kvancz, who lost twice last year to the Eagles. "If we can neutralize their height, it will be a game. Otherwise, they'll carry us out on stretchers."

AU, meanwhile, is struggling with an identity crisis. "Usually you use the games before Jan. 1 to get a feeling for what you have," said AU coach Jim Lynam. "But we have 11 games before Dec. 27. We have to sink on swim with the things we're doing now."

The Eagles looked spunky in losing to Maryland by 13, then looked completely offenseless in losing by 15 to Navy the next night. "I think the Maryland game reflected our real potential," said Lynam. "I sure hope so."

Navy seems on the verge of upsetting a good team. They have added an occasional fast break to their regime of rigorous defensive rebounding and close-order-drill offense. The Mids led powerful GU for a half before losing, then handled AU with assurance the next evening.

"When we play Princeton, it will be like a mirror of ourselves," said Navy coach Bob Hamilton. "We could be the two more disciplined teams in the East."

The Mids and Tigers might play the first basketball game in which passes outnumber dribbles. Both coaches think the ball will explode (or should) if it is bounced more than once.

If GW builds an attractive lead against Richmond, look for the Colonials to rub it in a bit. The Spiders not only won two meetings last year by a total of three points, but in the contest at Richmond, GW is still convinced it received a "homer" job from the officials. This year the Colonials, despite potentially weak backcourt players, should have too much size, depth and agility up front to fear the spiders' home-court officials.