After years of trying to find out what a Hoya is, basketball fans now have to figure what a Big East is.

Georgetown's Hoyas host Providence tonight at 8 o'clock (WTTG-TV-5) in the first Big East Conference game for each school that was a prime mover in the formation of the new league.

Hoya dates back to a long-ago Georgetown team known as the Stonewalls, or, in Latin, as one student dubbed them at the time, "Hoia saxa" -- what rocks. Now the Big East becomes the latest in a string of conferences including the word East or Eastern. Hardly anyone can tell you who belongs to which conference. It's more confusing than NFL tie breakers.

"One of our goals for our first year," said Dave Gavitt, acting commissioner, U.S. Olympic basketball coach and Providence athletic director, "is that at the end of our first year no one asks, 'What's the Big East?' and 'Who's in the Big East?'"

It is a question still asked about the Eastern Athletic Association, also known as the Eastern Eight, and entering its fourth year, only now organizing a television package and operating with a league office and a commissioner.

The strength of the Big East is that three of its members -- Syracuse, St. John's and Georgetown -- are nationally ranked and played in the NCAA tournament last season. So did Connecticut. Providence, once an Eastern power, now is rebuilding. The other two members, Boston College and Seton Hall, are in major markets.

"We want this to be a real first class basketball conference that can play with any other conference in the country," said Frank Rienzo, the Georgetown athletic director.

The foundation is there. So is the scheduled postseason tournament, in Providence this season, even though the league will not receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for its champion until the 1981-82 season.

And, one of the decisions the league made early, was to spend money to make money and gain recognition. For instance, the league hierachy has tried to avoid the pitfalls of other new leagues.

To do this, Gavitt and his associates did their homework. They conferred heavily with officials of two new conferences -- the Metro and the Sun Belt -- and of two well established ones -- the Big Ten and the Pac 10 -- plus touching base with the Southeastern.

As a result, two big developments emerged:

After finding out the success the Metro Conference had in its initial television package, the Big East went south and hired Bill Tanner of Memphis to syndicate its league television package. The package will be carried Thursday nights this season, with an outlet in every major East Coast market (WTTG-TV-5 will carry the games here).

When double-round-robin play begins next season, conference action will not start until January and then all games will be played Wednesday and Saturday nights, with the exception of regionally televised Saturday afternoon games and the league's game of the week on Monday night.

"There is a lot to be gained from traditional scheduling," said Gavitt. "It's sort of like the Big Ten. The fans and media look forward to seeing the scores the next day and how they relate to each other. You can also make plans because you know the games will be on Wednesday and Saturday."

The league sent a page of its logos -- in all sizes -- to every newspaper and television station in the east. It has published a league newspaper. The first edition had a press run of 15,000. Of those, 2,000 were distributed to eastern media and to athletic directors and basketball coaches nationwide.

The other 13,000 were mailed to supporters of the seven league schools, the people the league considers the most likely buyers of tickets to the league tournament.

Among its own network, the ECAC-TVS Saturday game of the week (on WRC-TV-4 here) and national games, Big East teams will make 32 regional or national television appearances this year.

The league television package is expected to make only $75,000 its first year. It could have been more, but league officials decided on first-class telecasts -- four cameras and a slow-motion disk.

The league also had set expansion as a goal for next season, to get an eighth team. The league prefers a Philadelphia school, since it is the only major east coast market not represented now, although a Philadelphia station has picked up the television package this season.

Sources say Gavitt is courting Villanova, currently a member of the Eastern Athletic Association, and that the Wildcats have been noncommittal thus far. He soon may press for a commitment. The other Philadelphia schools reported to have shown interest are La Salle and St. Joseph's. A decision may be made at the NCAA convention next month.

Meanwhile, Georgetown, 5-1 after a 78-75 victory over Houston in the final of the Nike Cage Classic Sunday night, takes on a 4-1 Providence team tonight that should be overmatched. The Friars, for whom Hoya Coach John Thompson played his college ball, are weak inside.

Providence Coach Gary Walters, in his first season after success at Dartmouth, recruited a good point guard in Ricky Tucker of Philadelphia and the Friars likely will try for a slow-paced, low-scoring game. The question for Georgetown will be how tired the Hoyas will be after their recent travels and whether their mental state will enable them to increase the tempo, as Thompson will want.