College basketball, that five-month spectacle with its hundreds of teams and thousands of games, finally approaches its conclusion this week.

At last, it's tournament time.

American University can hardly wait to host Hofstra tonight at 8 o'clock at Fort Myer to start the East Coast Conference's come-one, come-all shootout.

The Eagles (15-11) look at their almost secret rookie star, Russell (Boo) Bowers, and their comfortable old senior, Howie Lassoff, and figure they are getting better every game.

After all, didn't AU upset, GW Saturday. And haven't the Eagles played the ECC's two best teams, Temple and La Salle, in down-to-the-wire battles within the last two weeks?

And didn't AU whip Hofstra earlier this month?

At Georgetown, the Hoyas are anxious, too -- not so much to start the ECAC tournament as to figure out what in the world is going on. Are they the team that beats up on Holy Cross, Alabama, St. John's, Georgia and Detroit? Or are they the folks who got dumped by Fordham yesterday?

Virginia Commonwealth, with its flashy 21-3 record against mediocre competition, arrives for an 8 p.m. ECAC Southern Division playoff with 21-5 GU at Smith Center Wednesday. For the hot-n-cold running Hoyas, the timing is nerve-wracking. Which Georgetown team will show up?

For George Washington, however. Thursday's opening of the Eastern Eight blood-letting in Pittsburgh is definitely coming much too soon.

"Hold it," yell the (15-10) Colonials, "We're not ready."

GW's four-game losing binge is the most discouraging sort. Two Eastern Eighters, Rutgers and Massachusetts, have blasted them by 33 points, while two backyard foes, GU and AU, have escaped by margins of one and four points.

Where is the joy of 101 points against Maryland in December?

GW's Thursday opponent (to be determined today) could be Mass, Duquesne or host Pitt. In their current state, does it matter who the Foggy Bottom fellows play?

AU offers the contrast to GW. When GW was soaring over Maryland, AU was getting its feathers plucked by Clemson (40 points), Navy (15) and anonymous Northeastern, while escaping Siena and Catholic by one point.

The Eagles have flown far since December, mostly on the wings of the breathtaking Bowers.

"Russell Bowers has done more to transform our program than probably any freshman in the country," said AU's fiesty coach, Jimmy Lynam. "Eavin Johnson at Michigan State is the only person who has had comparable impact."

In the last 10 games the 6-foot-6 Bowers, who combines some of the fluid moves of Maryland's Albert King with the power of GU's Craig Shelton, has averaged 20 points and eight rebounds while shooting better than 60 percent.

Bowers' stock has risen weekly. His 29 points (on just 18 shots) against GW was the latest peak in the graph.

Bowers' inconspicuous style hid him for awhile, even from his own mates. Slowly, AU is learning that giving the ball to Boo is never a bad idea. He even gives it back.

"He has perfect athletic temperament. Nothing rattles him," said Lynam. "He's unselfish and takes the plays that come his way. Against GW, he never worked for a shot. Suddenly, he was just in the right place to score.

"His spectacular plays are over in such a sudden fashion," said Lynam, "that you ask yourself. 'Did Bowers just grab a rebound, switch hands in midair, spin his body and bank in a fallaway before he came down"'"

More often Lynam has had to muse, "Did that ball really bounce off Howie Lassoff's head?"

It is testimony to Lynam and Lassoff that the AU coach can now say, "Howie has become a very fine player . . . it's only this year that he's realized how good he can be. . . he can sink an 18-footer off the break like very few 6-10s. . . he's madew agile plays a guard would be proud of."