He says they are his best friends. He calls them "The Comedian" and "The Monster." They call him, simply, Matthews.

He is Kenny Mathews of North Carolina State. They are John Duren and Craig Shelton, respectively, of Georgetown. When these three teammates from Dunbar High's undefeated 1976 city championship team see each other again, it will be in Madison Square Garden Sunday night for the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.

It is a basketball game that could be contested at D.C.'s Kelly Miller playground instead of at the mecca of hoopdom. State's Hawkeye Whitney, a De Matha grad, knows virtually every Hoya.

"I played against Lonnie Duren, John Duren and Craig Shelton in high school, " Whitney recalled. "Craig and I played together in all-star games. Baba (Duren's regular nickname) and I were teammates at the Five Star Camp. I played against Tom Scates in the summer leagues and against Al Dutch when he was in high school at Carroll."

Craig Davis, State's senior reserve guard whose tournament status is questionable because of a slight shoulder seperation, played in the Washington suburbs, at Peary High, and guard Clyde Austin down the road in Richmond.

State's games are followed closely in Washington because of the Atlantic Coast Conference television network. But Georgetown gets its share of television exposure in Raleigh, too, because WTTG-TV, the principle carrier of Hoya games, is picked up on cable down there.

In other words, with so many Washingtonians involved in this game, it is more than an NIT semifinal, with the winner playing the Texas-Rutgers survivor for the championship Tuesday night. It is a matchup for the bragging rights on the Washington playgrounds this summer. Right?

Wrong, according to the principles.

"What it comes down to is us being Georgetown U. and them being N.C. State, two good teams," Duren said. "I don't think any individual from either team is going to be out there trying to show one another how good he is. He will go out to contribute to his team."

"On the playground, we'd joke and play around," Matthews said. "Sunday, it gets down to playing hard-nosed basketball."

The national emphasis this season is on team play. There are no dominant players. None of the NCAA's top 30 scorers plays on one of the final 16 teams in the NCAA tournament, Georgetown and State are of the same ilk.

Even without Derrick Jackson, still hospitalized while recovering from a bleeding ulcer, Georgetown (23-6); plays nine men, led by Duren's 16.2 scoring average. State (20-9) normally uses 10 players, with Whitney the leading scorer at 14.7.

The connections among the players go back before high school. Matthews first met Duren when they were members of the Washington team in the U.S. Youth Games. They quickly became pals, Duren being a year ahead of Matthews in school.

When he arrived at Dunbar, Matthews called Duren "The Comedian" because he was always funny during lucnh time and called Shelton, commonly known now as "Big Sky," "The Monster" because he had a knack for settling matters both on and off the court.

And Matthews?

"He was just a very nice, quiet dude," Duren said. "He had no nickname. We just called him Matthews."