The defection of North Carolina Central to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association is a first step toward exclusive Division I membership for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which would mean an automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament for the MEAC.

Howard, South Caroline State, North Carolina A&T and Delaware State want to go Division I and the league voted at its last meeting that the league's other three schools - Central, Morgan State and Maryland-Eastern Shore - have until next spring to declare for Division I or drop out of the league.

Leo Miles, the Howard athletic director, said yesterday that four or five other schools - including Florida A&M, Bethune Cookman and Morris Brown - have shown interest in joining the MEAC.

The league's basketball status is the major concern, since the NCAA could declare all teams in the league as Division II and thus push back any chances of recognition for an automatic bid for three years.

As a result, Miles said, he doubts that the Division I schools in MEAC will be able to play the Division II schools in double-round-robin regular-season play this coming year.

"If we've got to drop them, we've got to drop them to meet NCAA requirements," Miles said.