The play of freshmen likely will be the key factor when Georgetown and Maryland collide tonight in the second game of Capital Centre's tipoff basketball doubleheader. American U. and Navy meet in the opener at 7 o'clock.

Because of scheduling problems, last year's tournament format has been scrapped this year for a one-night doubleheader. Advance ticket sales already have surpassed last year's championship-game attendance of 6,000, when Maryland won a 91-87 thriller over the Hoyas.

A number of top players, including Maryland's Albert King and Larry Gibson and Georgetown's Craig Shelton and John Duren, are causing the brisk advance sale. But the freshmen, most of whom come in with gobs of high-school All-America publicity and a closet full of trophies and traveling bags from a glut of all-star games, hold the key to the season's first major test for either team.

"It should be a fan's ball game," said Georgetown Coach John Thompson. "I would rather watch than coach."

Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said, "I really don't know what to expect. Against Bucknell we played well at times and then let up. I think that's going to be the story of our team this year - up and down, and we better be up tomorrow night."

Three freshmen are likely to start and at least five others hold important reserve roles. If Driesell goes with his starting five in yesterday's practice. Maryland's first-year starters will be point guard Dutch Morley and power forward Buck Williams, both highly recruited scholastic stars. Driesell has been shuttling players, including four freshmen, this season.

Thompson said yesterday he will start 6-foot-9 Ed Spriggs at power forward. He is the exception among freshmen. He is 22, has worked as a mule driver on the C&O Canal, as a maintenance man on Maryland's College Park campus and for the U.S. Postal Service.

Spriggs did not play basketball at Northwestern High School. He weighs 235 pounds, can run and, one observer noted after watching him, is strong enough to pull that barge on the canal himself, instead of driving the mule. His only organized basketball experience is in recreation leagues and two summers of Urban Coalition play.

To some, it may seem Thompson's Folly that he is starting Spriggs next to 6-foot-11 center Tom Scates, thereby moving the quick 6-7 Shelton to small forward and 6-4 1/2 Steve Martin to guard, a position he played in high school.

Not so, Thompson said.

"Spriggs' development is important to our program," the coach said."I have to get him as much experience as I can give him early in the season. If his development comes along, it gives us a bigger team. This is the time of the year to do it, instead of waiting until you have problems.

"Ed's not going to develop as a player to help us until he gets on the floor. He needs playing time more than anybody else. The other kids all played a lot in high school. "He just has to get accustomed to getting in game situations."

In six weeks of practice, Spriggs said yesterday following a workout at the Centre, he is getting accustomed to playing team basketball for the first time.

"I'm used to playing one on one. Here you have four other people with you. I'm just going to keep on working."

Georgetown's plan tonight, Thompson said, is to run more cautiously and try to get Maryland into a halfcourt game, instead of a run-and-gun affair as was last year.

Thompson said, "I don't know how deep we are, effectively. If we start to get tired, the effectiveness of our youth has to be good."

Thompson's other top freshmen include guard Eric Floyd, likely the first substitute for either Scates or Spriggs: swingman Eric Smith; forward Mike Hancock, and forward Jeff Bullis, who missed the opener against Bowie State with a stomach virus but may be able to play tonight.

The other major question concerning Georgetown is how well Duren will take over leadership of the team after the graduation of guard Derrick Jackson, the only starter lost from last season.

The first game pairs two teams with similar looks - not overly big but tenacious with standout cscorers. The Navy big man is 5-7 Kevin Sinnett and AU's scorers are guard Stan Lamb and forward Boo Bowers.

Navy is 1-0, having beaten Haverford. AU is 0-2, but, as Navy Coach Bob Hamilton said, "We'd be 0-2, too, if we had played St. John's and Alabama."

In the only other major area game tonight, George Washington tries to recover from two horrendous losses in the Virginia Tipoff Tournament in its 8 p.m. home opener against Washington College, a Division III nonpower, at Smith Center.