The Virginia Tipoff Basketball Tournament begins here tonight with four teams that averaged 19 victories each last season and could do better this time around.

In some circles, this season-opening event on University Hall is being called the Ballard High Reunion because seven members, including five starters, of the Virginia and George Washington teams played together at the Louisville high school.

For them to play together again in tomorrow's 9 p.m. final, Virginia (20-8 last season) must get past James Madison (18-8) in tonight's 7 p.m. opener and George Washington (15-11) has to beat Virginia Commonwealth (24-5), the suprise of ECAC basketball a year ago.

Virginia, the tournament favorite, is expected to be an easy winner tonight but GW's Colonials rate slight underdogs, even with a veteran team and transfer guard Brian Magid making his regular-season debut, as a reserve.

Elsewhere, among Washington-area teams in action tonight, Maryland opens its season at home against Bucknell, 8 p.m.; AU's Gary Williams makes his collegiate coaching debut when the Eagles play host St. John's in the first round of the Lapchick Memorial Tournament, and injury-plagued Catholic debuts at Clemson, 8 p.m.

VCU Coach Dana Kirk, in his second year at the Richmond school, is uncertain about his Rams, whom he calls "the most successful young team in America." Only the four returning starters have much experience and 10 of his 13 players are either freshmen or sophomores.

The Rams missed an NCAA tournament berth last season with a onepoint loss to St. Bonaventure, after beating Georgetown in the semifinals of the ECAC Upstate-Southern playoffs. They had only three regular-season losses last year.

"They're good," said GW guard Bob Lindsay, "but I wish we could have played their schedule last year. I don't think they could have beaten Villanova or Rutgers."

Lindsay, in his one year at GW after transfering from Florida, has developed into the Colonials' best all-round player, a terror from the second-guard position in GW's transistion game and a major reason why the sharp-shooting Magid is not able to crack GW's starting five.

GW Coach Bob Tallent said he expects Magid to play 15 to 20 minutes tonight. In an exhibition game against Marathon oil, Lindsay was used extensively as the small forward, giving Magid and the quick Daryle Charles playing time at the second guard.

Tallent wants to get into a running game tonight.

"That's our best game," he said. "They better be worried if they can run with us. We're better team and have a better chance of winning when the score gets into the 80s. I'm just hoping we can get some rebounds."

Defense is GW's weakest suit, which means that when Tallent uses the three guards - which helps the GW zone press quicken the game's pace - he has to bench either 6-foot-5 Mike Samson, his best defensive player, or 6-8 Tom Glenn, a rebounder and good shooter.

With Glenn on the bench, that would leave 6-10 center Mike Zagardo to do the bulk of the rebounding against VCU's 6-9 Ren Watson, strong off the boards and a defensive force, and 6-9 Penny Elliott, the Rams' second leading rebounder a year ago.

GW's Ballard grads include starters Tom Tate, Lindsay and Samson. The injured Curt Jeffries, who will not play tonight, also is from that school. Virginia's ex-Ballard players are starting guard Jeff Lamp, starting forward Lee Raker and reserve Terry Gates. Virginia assistant Richard Schmidt coached them all in high school.

At St. John's AU's Williams has decided to start transfer Bob Harvey at center and hopes the Eagles can rebound with a smaller-than-normal St. John's team led by 6-foot-9 Wayne McKoy, reportedly having lost weight and who is more intense this season.

Williams wants to run because "I want to see (St. John's Coach Lou) Carnesecca go to his bench because we have eight or nine players and they're not as deep as they've been in the past. They have lots of untested players on their bench."

At Clemson, CU Coach Jack Kvancz is hoping his Cardinals can keep it close enough so his young players get some meaningful experience to help them against Howard and American U. next week. "Don't say massacre," Kvancz said. "It's not over yet. Even Custer had a chance."