Mackin High School basketball coach Steve Hocker scheduled his talented team for three holiday tournaments within a 20-day span for one reason - to prepare for the Metro Conference race.

The second-ranked Trojans (12.1) will see how well-prepared they are tonight when they face No. 1-ranked De Matha (9.0) in the conference opener for both teams at Catholic University at 8.

The rare early season meeting between the area's No.1 and No.2 teams features speed, patience and muscle.

De Matha made its own preparations for the season. After a two-week summer tour of Brazil (12.0), the Stags waltzed through South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, whipping those states' highly regarded teams.

The starting unit of Charles Branch, Paul Devito, Joe Washington, Dutch Morley and Chris Gildea, and the triple threat trio of Sidney Lowe (pass), Derek Whittenberg (shoot) and Percy White (muscle) had equal playing time during the stags' domination of such teams as Bladwin (Pa) (94-68). Monsignor Bonner (75-59) and Nazareth (N.Y.) (63-57). The 6-foot-5 Branch is the team's leading scorer with a 16.7 average.

Mackin, which lost three games to De Matha last season, has converted from a run-and-gun outfit into a well disciplined, patient group.

Kenny Payne directs the Mackin attack and the point guard has no trouble collecting assists since Richard Crooks (15.5), Mark Nickens (12.6) and Moe Young (140) can score, Anthony Martin and Kevin Black, both 6-5, share the rebounding duties.

"It should be a good one. We both did the same thing, playing tournaments to toughen up the kids," said De Matha coach Morgan Wootten. "I can't remember the last time a No.1 and 2 team have played so early."

If De Matha has an edge, it is depth. Wootten shuttles his players while Hocker usually sticks with his top six.

"Depth will be a key factor, that's for sure,"said Wootten "But even if we have a slight edge in that area, they'll have to produce. Regardless, we'll have to be at our best to win."