Pro basketball fans talk frequently about the second season, or the playoffs. College baskeball, especially in the Washington area, earns that label better.

For half the area's eight Division I schools - George Washington, Virginia, Maryland and American U. - it matters not whether they win or lose all their regular-season games. By winning their conference tournament, they automatically gain a berth in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

For three of the others - George town, Navy and Catholic - their season records can qualify them for the eastern independent (ECAC) playoffs and an automatic at-large bid.

And that leaves Howard as a stepchild in the playoff picture.

Here's a closer look at each major team's playoff position, in alphabetical order:

American U. (East Coast Conference) - For the first time all 12 conference teams will qualify for the leaque's tournament, starting Feb. 27. The Eagles have strong upset capabilities, but thoughts of a tournament championship are unrealistic.

Catholic U. (independent) - No serious playoff chance. The Cardinals, who host Hofstra tonight, are staying around .500 in their second season of Division I, play and most people expected worse.

George Washington (Eastern Eight) - The Colonials should be second choice, behind Villanova, in the March 2-4 tournament at Pittsburgh. Pairings will not become clear until after this week's play. GW has won 10 of last 12 games, losing twice to Villanova, which may be the best Eastern team at this time.

If GW wins the tournament, it would play an at-large team in the NCAA East Regional first round March 12 at Penn. The Eastern Eight, by the way, is formally known as Eastern Athletic Association.

Georgetown (independent) - This team, ranked No. 1 in the East until recently, should be playing William & Mary or Virginia Commonwealth in the March 1 Southern Division playoff of the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

The ECAC playoffs bring together the east's top teams for competition to settle at-large bids previously awarded by committee. The ECAC has three automatic bids to the NCAA tourney.

The Southern Division winner plays the upstate New York winner March 4. That winner gets an NCAA berth. The NCAA tournament committee has the right to place ECAC winners in any of the four regionals. In Georgetown's last two NCAA appearances, the Hoyas played in the West and Modeast regionals.

Howard (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) - The Bison are in Division I, but two members of their conference (Morgan State and North Carolina Central) are not. So Howard's only route to the NCAA tournament is as an at-large entry. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen, despite at 14-5 record.

What Howard is hoping for is an invitation to the NIT. Don't hold your breath for that, either.

Maryland (Atlantic Coast Conference) - This is the wackiest, and one of the oldest, of the qualifying tournaments. Despite its reputation as an upset tournament, the ACC is won more often than not by the regular-season champion.

The tournament will be held March 1, 2, 4 at Greensboro, N.C.

Navy (independent) - No playoff chance after losing to William and Mary last week. But the Mids are on the way to their second straight winning season and that's the first time that's happened at Annapolis in 16 years.

Virginia (Atlantic Coast Conference) - If the Cavalier can shake their recent slump, it will be among them, Duke and North Carolina for the title. Virginia has the best won-lost record in the previous two ACC tornaments.