It began as a noble experiment in cooperation and competition, Maryland, Georgetown, American and Navy combining for a two-night basketball tournament that after a year became a one-night doubleheader. Always, there has been one question more important than final scores:

Will the series go another year?

By every reasonable standard except the one that matters most -- money -- it has been a success. The games have been intense and dramatic, the level of individual skills breathtaking at times, the afterglow for the area quite warm.

"I'm an idealist, to the point that I believe a university owes something to the community," said the AU athletic director, Bob Frailey, after Wednesday's affair. "And this is one area where we can give something back to the area.

"A school ought to be able to take one or two games out of 26 and put pride and tradition ahead of dollars."

Then Frailey the realist replied to Frailey the idealist and said of the series: "Can the universities really afford it" Individually, we all can do better somewhere else as far as money goes. It's a sad commentary, but it's also 1979."

So the prospects of the three-year affair-continuing to a fourth appear bleak. But another and even more disheartening possibility seems to be taking shape: the end of a Georgetown Maryland rivalry that has lasted more than a half-century.

Some answers to some questions yesterday generated that feeling. They came from Maryland's athletic director, Carl James.

Can we assume that the doubleheader format is dead?

"I think so," James said, "unless we can work out some dates. And the dates that they have and the dates I have aren't consistent at this point."

Will Maryland play Georgetown?

"The dates they had and the dates I have are not consistent at this point. Frank (Rienzo, the Georgetown athletic director) and I already have had a meeting. I cannot assume we well play Georgetown."

Presently, Maryland and the other Atlantic Coast Conference schools are rearranging their future basketball schedules, trying to be fair and economical at the same time. When that is finished, James said, he will complete the schedule with nonconference games.

The ACC wants to avoid the expense of a Maryland traveling to a Clemson one month and then traveling to a Georgia Tech the next. With the new schedule, the Terrapins would play at Georgia Tech and at Clemson during one long weekend.

"Everything else hinges on the new ACC schedule," James said.

There has been an intriguing pattern to Maryland's schedule in recent years. The team left Cole Field House only three times for non-ACC games in '78-'79, to the Cap Centre for the doubleheader involving Georgetown, to Hershey for Penn State and to Las Vegas for a business-and-pleasure game, with a warmup against Air Force en route.

This season, Maryland left Cole for non-ACC games against Penn State in Hershey and Georgetwon Wednesday in the Armory. It will play a big-bucks game against Notre Dame in South Bend.

James hinted that Maryland will insist the Penn State series be played at a more neutral site than Hershey occasionally in future years. He said Maryland will play in an immensely lucrative tournament next season in Syracuse and at nationally glamorous Louisville.

But could Lefty Driesell be pulling the Terrapins deeper into their Cole Field House shell? Might Maryland now only go on roads other than Tobacco Road for big-money games or ones important for recruiting?

That might be as much as a reasonable person should ask, the ACC pits being among the most wicked in the country. Must a man be forced to risk athletic suicide? And James is in an uneviable position, with many more demands for dollars than there are dollars at the moment.

Perhaps a tournament that must accommodate four schools -- or at least when one of them includes Maryland -- cannot be financially viable. But an interesting tournament or doubleheader in the Armory might work without Maryland.

Georgetown is Maryland's equal on the court. It might well be able to be the money cornerstone of a city series that would involve, say, AU, George Washington and Howard.

Also, despite Maryland having to play without Buck Williams and the chance of Georgetown missing Craig Shelton, the games Wednesday drew only 600 fewer customers than the Bullets and Knicks in Cap Centre.

Maryland versus Georgetown clearly should sell on its own merits. But later in the season, perhaps late in January or February. For that rivalry to die would be regarded as unforgivable by basketball purists.

For future Albert Kings and future Craig Shelton to play so close to each other and never against each other, beyond the playgrounds, would suggest cowardice at both Maryland and Georgetown.

The moment Wednesday, when Shelton rose for an apparently unmolested dunk and King suddenly materialized a foot above the rim to slap the ball away -- made a rather predictable game memorable.

One other moment Wednesday may have had a deep effect on future games, may in fact have driven a tense relationship between the schools beyond repair.

That came when the Georgetown coach, John Thompson, became livid over what he considered Driesell's successful attempt at influencing a technical-foul call against Hoya Ed Spriggs after a dunk.

It was an ugly scene, with close-up witnesses saying Thompson used shockingly obscene language toward Driesell. At least one impartial fan considered Driesell correct for not shaking Thompson's hand after the final buzzer.

Will two large men be big enough to make up?

Georgetown badly wants the doubleheaders and its games with Maryland to continue. But at what price, in terms of money and pride? Surely, Thompson will not take his Hoyas to Maryland unless Driesell brings his Terrapins to Georgetown.

Is the Cap Centre more neutral than the Armory? Why do grownups act so childish so often?

"If people want something to work, they'll find a way to make it work," said Georgetown's Rienzo, adding that Maryland's reworking its ACC schedule ought to help the schools arrange a game. "If they don't want it to work, they'll find a way out."