Throughout its 28-year history the Eastern College Athletic Conference's Holiday Festival basketball tournament has enjoyed its reputation as a "national" tournament in Madison Square Garden.

Until this year. With Georgetown, St. John's, Boston College and Lafayette comprising the field, there have been charges of provincialism, accompanied by predictions of box-office doom for the granddaddy of all holiday tournaments.

But the field's collective record of 22-3 ha gone a long way toward silencing the critics. Georgetown (7-1) and St. John's (6-1) are two of the East's three nationally ranked teams; Boston College (5-1), which opens against the Hoyas in the opener Wednesday night at 7, nearly upset top-ranked Duke last weekend; and Lafayette, admittedly untested, is nevertheless 4-0.

Georgetown and St. John's are expected to meet for the championship Friday night, but neither is a cinch to win its opening game (the Redmen open against Lafayette following the Georgetown-Boston College game).

The Hoyas won the Holiday Festival in 1977; that year, point guard John Duren -- then a sophomore -- was selected the tournament's most valuable player. This year, the tournament culminates a Georgetown December schedule during which Coach John Thompson hoped to determine both his team's depth and its leaders. He has done both.

Ironically, Georgetown played its strongest game in defeat, against then-top-ranked Indiana. After that game, Hoosier Coach Bobby Knight said that this year's Hoyas were better than last year's, and Thompson himself concedes that current team is further advanced at this stage of the year than any of his previous seven.

"I also have four guys who I feel comfortable putting in and not being hurt," said Thompson, referring to forwards Al Dutch, Jeff Bullis and Mike Hancock and guard Terry Fenlon.Until 7-footer Mike Frazier loses more weight, Hancock and Bullis will also back up a center.

"And the leadership aspect has taken care of itself," he said. "John and (Craig) Shelton have gotten into situations where they have taken over, both in terms of play and direction. I thought that would happen, but you have to see it in a game to be sure."

A year ago, during Georgetown's best-ever 24-5 season, four starters averaged at least 33 minutes each per game, with Duren high at 35. Tom Scates, since graduated along with team captain and leader Steve Martin, sharing the center position with Ed Spriggs.

On defense, Thompson wants his team to react more quickly in its constant stream of changing defenses. Offensively, he is looking for a better fast break.

Most teams do not want to run with the Hoyas, who are versatile enough to play at any tempo. Boston College, starting three guards, including 5-8 "forward" Mike Bennett, may be the exception.

"We are fast-break and pressure-defense oriented," said TomDavis, BC coach and former Maryland and American U. assistant. "Will pressure beat them? I don't know.You can't do much to disturb John Duren. But that's the way we play."

This BC team graduated its one-man offense from last season's 21-9 team. Guard Ernie Cobb, the leading scorer, was able to dominate some games so well offensively that he could carry the Eagles to victory. This team has more continuity.

Despite starting the three guards -- none taller than 6 feet -- BC's offense is inside-oriented; Davis' strategy promotes numerous baseline screens. All five starters average in double figures.

"Starting three guards was not by plan," Davis said. "But they established themselves as our best players. When you're trying to rebuild a program, you try to get the best recruits you can . . . and it so happened more guards were available."

Not to say this team doesn't play taller. The Eagles have outrebounded every opponent this season except Duke, which beat Boston, 70-64, in overtime.

"We can hang in (rebounding) with most clubs, but Georgetown and St. John's are not most clubs," Davis said. "We're a pretty respectable club but, on certain nights, we are inconsistent because of our size. With a young team you get a couple of wins (over Fairfield and Seton Hall) and that's bound to help your confidence. The Duke game was a good experience for our players."

The other game pairs St. John's, its starting five from last season's NCAA East Regional final intact, against Lafayette, whose most impressive win this season was an 81-79 road victory at American U.

However, Lafayette, the only tourament entry not a member of the new Big East Conference, has the "take-us-lightly" factor in its favor -- as well as 6-foot-10, 250-pound center Charlie Naddaff from Brooklyn, who wears size-20 sneakers and has developed into the Leopard's' key man.

"This year we feel he's developed into a bona fide, major-college center," said Coach Roy Chipman. "As Charlie goes, so will we go."

That makes for an interesting matchup against Wayne McKoy, the St. John's center who is exceptionally foul-prone. He has fouled out of 16 games less than a month into his junior season, including three of seven this year.

St. John's starts the same five players from last year's NCAA tournament -- McKoy, forwards Ron Plair and Frank Gilroy and Guards Bernard Rencher and Reggie Carter. Coach Lou Carnesecca plays seven men, with freshman forward David Russell coming off the bench to lead the Redmen in rebounding and transfer guard Curtis Redding, twice All-Big Eight at Kansas State, averaging 11.8 points, third best on the team.

This team, like Georgetown's, is better than last year's. Its only loss was a 17-point loss on the road to Tennessee. "We stunk," was the way St. John's spokesman Bill Esposito described that contest.