Georgetown plays Dayton tonight in a quarterfinal of the National Invitation Tournament. The game will be played in the University of Dayton Arena, a modern, plush basketball pit that transforms the Flyers into a virtual powerhouse.

Just ask Digger Phelps, the Notre Dame coach whose highly ranked Irish fell here earlier this month.

"It's a tough place tp play because of the Tartan floor, the tight rims and the crowd. You almost have to play a perfect game to win there. They're a different basketball team in that arena. You have to shoot well, control the boards and can't turn the ball over."

The NIT announced yesterday that the winter of this 8:15 p.m! tipoff (WEAM-1390) will face the Detroit-at-North Carolina State survivor in Sunday's semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

The Detroit-N.C. State game will be played tonight, as will the Indiana State-at-Rutgers matchup. The other quarterfinal sends Nebraska to Texas on Wednesday night.

At one point, Dayton was a frequent NCAA tournament competitor and almost an annual NIT participant on the years the Flyers failed to make the NCAA field. The Flyers hit hard times in the 1970s.

Dayton's 19-9 record - including a 17-2 advantage at home - marks only the second time in the last seven seasons the Flyers have not lost at least 11 games.

Coach Don Dunoher, a former Dayton captain now in his 14th season as coach has a simple explanation: recruiting.

"It was a player or two we didn't recruit, a couple we didn't get," he said. "There was no de-emphasis or cutback in recruiting money or anything like that. We just didn't get the job done."

Three years ago, Donoher reverses that trend, after a 10-16 season, his worst. The chief recruiting battle that year was for a 6-foot-5 guard, Jim Paxson. The final two schools involved were Dayton and Kentucky.

Paxson chose to play at Dayton where his father had also played basketball.

He is the leading scorer and best all-round player on a team characterized by its strong man-to-man defense, its disciplined offense and its lack of quickness.

Donoher, however, does not like to single out Paxson for praise. He refers to three players who fill big roles for the Flyers: Paxson, as scorer; 6-7 Erv Giddings, as rebounder, and 6-2 Jack Zimmerman, as the outside-shooting zone buster.

Donoher is a big advocate of statistics. And statistics show Paxson's value as Flyer No. 1. Paxson has failed to score in double figures only twice this season. That occured in the two home games the Flyers lost - to Temple and to Cincinnati.

Statistically, Donoher says the Flyers have come closer to reaching their defensive goals this season than their offensive goals. Yet, many observes, including Georgetown assistant Billy Stein, who scouted them, think the Flyer offense is better.

"They have very good movement inside and very good movement away from the ball and not too many college teams do that. Paxson moves very, very well without the ball," Stein said.

With Paxson finally maturing this year, 6-6 freshman forward Jim Rhoden is only now coming into his own. He is a physical player and an extremely good offensive rebounder, partically because of long arms that help him play taller than he is.

Dayson whipped Fairfield, 108-93, in the NIT's first round. Donoher does not want a pace that fast tonight. That game had 90 possessions; he would like a 70-possession game against Georgetown.

"We sometimes play out two guards 40 minutes a game. And we're not quick. So we don't want to press all over the court," Donoher said. "We don't chew up the clock 30-40 seconds at a time. But we generally don't get a shot up one pass over the time line, either."

Quickness, which Dayton lacks, is Georgetown's biggest asset along with what coach John Thompson calls effort that 'exemplifies the things that teams are supposed to exemplify."

With star guard Derrick Jackson unavailable while recovering from a bleeding ulcer, Thompson is counting on the quickness of forward Craig Shelton and 6-9 center Ed Hopkins to carry the Hoyas through a difficult assignment.

"We've got to get our share of rebounds and, offensively, because Derrick is out, we have to have a reasonably good game inside. Craig has to play well. If we can get a good game from Hop, that will be a big help."

At a press conference yesterday, Thompson was asked to give a run-down on his players. He mentioned six or seven.

"You didn't talk about Shelton," he was told. Craig Shelton. Umm. I wonder why I forgot him?" Thompson said. "That's the franchise."