Walk into the North Carolina State basketball team's locker room on any given winter day and you might find yourself in the middle of a heated argument -- about Washington high school basketball.

In one corner of the locker room, Hawkeye Whitney, Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg might be insisting that the team to beat is DeMatha. Across the room, Kenny Matthews might be shaking his head, saying this is Dunbar's year. And somewhere in the middle, Thurl Bailey might be softly saying that Bladensburg could handle both of them.

This isn't an ACC basketball team; it's a reunion of Washington All-Met teams.

"We have always recruited quickness," State Coach Norman Sloan said. "When you come into the Washington area, you find the kind of player we like here. A player who is usually quick; a player who has faced a lot of pressure throughout high school; a player who is well-coached."

In other words, a city player, one who combines street savvy with raw ability. That kind of player comes from places like Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles.

"Washington is just a natural for us." said Sloan. "Because of its location, this is a great place for the kids. They're away from home but still close by. They can be home in 45 minutes if necessary."

Sloan's five Washington-area players will celebrate a homecoming of sorts this evening at Cole Field House when State (11-3, 3-2 ACC) goes against Maryland (13-2, 5-1 ACC) at 7 p.m. (WDCA-TV-20).

Sloan's 14 years at State are testimony to the fact that Washington is his No. 1 recruiting area. During those years, he has brought in 11 Washington area players, building his recruiting hereabouts to the point where all three of this year's freshmen -- Lowe, Whittenburg and Bailey -- are from Greater Washington.

Two years ago, seeking an assistant coach, Sloan hired Marty Fletcher, 28, a De Matha graduate who had worked seven years as an assistant at the school. That has strengthened the Washington connection even more.

"People say that we got the three freshmen this year because I was here," Fletcher said. "That's really not true. I had little to do with it. This place, the fact that we've had Washington kids come here in the past and do well, are the reasons. Our alumni from Washington and our current players sell the program more than anything else."

Matthews, Lowe and Whittenburg all cited the presence of Whitney, the 6-foot-5 senior standout, as a major reason for their decision to come to State.

"When we were growing up, Hawkeye was like our hero," said the 6-foot Whittenburg. "When Sidney and I visited here, he told us about the place, that it was a good place to play. He came from the same high school program we did and liked it, so we figured we would like it, too."

Four years ago, when Whitney was being recruited, State's star player -- the leading scorer in the ACC, in fact -- was another De Matha graduate, Kenny Carr. Just as Whitney influenced Whittenburg and Lowe, Carr influenced Whitney. And, Sloan hopes, the two dynamic little freshmen will influence De Matha players in the future.

"You build a background," Sloan said. "When we first went into Washington in the '60s, we didn't have it so it was tougher. We still had the school to sell and a pretty good program. But we couldn't point at guys and say they came here and did well. Now, we can do that."

Sloan's first Washington area players were people like Doug Tilley from Walt Whitman, Paul Coder from Peary, Steve Graham from Bethesda-Chevy Chase, and Steve Nuce, also from Peary. None were stars. But they laid the groundwork.

"Coach became familiar in Washington," said Fletcher. "People knew he liked Washington-area players and that he would be around at games. Familiarity is very important in recruiting."

Sloan didn't miss landing Adrian Dantley by much. A year later, he beat out Notre Dame and Indiana for Carr. The Washington Connection was firmly established.

"We lose people to them sometimes because kids from this area don't want to stay at home," said Maryland's Lefty Driesell, Sloan's best friend among league coaches. "The kids here grow up on the ACC and they want to play ACC. But they don't want to be so close to home."

Another plus for State in recent years in recruiting head to head here against Maryland has been the poor experiences some local players who have gone to Maryland in recent years have had there. Billy Bryant is now at Western Kentucky, Jo Jo Hunter at Colorado, James (Turk) Tillman at Eastern Kentucky and Brian Magid at George Washington.

"When I was looking at schools, I knew what had happened to Billy, Jo Jo, and Turk because I had played against them and knew them," said Matthews, a 6-4 junior guard whose superb shooting touch has been off lately. "I didn't want to get involved in that scene. It came down to State or North Carolina. I decided I'd rather play three years with Hawkeye than one year with Phil Ford."

Early playing time and who they would be playing with are always important to recruited players. Sloan has always played freshmen extensively and uses the possibility of extending playing time as a lure in recruiting. All three freshmen this year have played frequently -- and in pressure situations.

This year, Maryland and State are battling for the services of 6-6 All-Met forward Pete Holbert of W. T. Woodson. Without talking specifics, Sloan notes that Maryland has Albert King and Ernest Graham back at forward next season. State grduates Whitney.

"If we were recruiting someone like Holbert," Sloan said, "he would have to decide where he can play more early."

The five players from the Washington area currently at State cite several reasons for their decision to attend the school.

Location. Raleigh is 235 miles from Washington, a 4 1/2-hour drive or a 45-minute plane ride. Homesickness can be handled by a weekend home.

The ACC. All of the D.C.-area players grew up watching ACC basketball on television. After Maryland, State is the ACC school that plays the closest things to a city-type of game. It is also similar to Maryland academically.

Past players at State. As Sloan points out, past players sell your program.

Sloan's style. State likes to run the ball and play transition basketball, much like it is played in this area. And freshmen play.

"I knew," said 5-9 Sidney Lowe, "that I would get a chance to play if I earned it. Not every program will do that.They don't like freshmen."

From State's point of view, there is an added factor. Because of the intensity of Washington-area basketball, most players can step into the college game without getting too shaken up by the ACC's intenseness and volatile crowds.

"You can't play under more pressure than De Matha-Dunbar," Whittenburg said. "The only difference is, in this league, every game is De Matha-Dunbar."

Preparing for the game Wednesday, Sloan flew to Washington Monday night. And what would he do Tuesday? he was asked.

"Go to games," he said smiling. "I can see one in the afternoon and one at night."

And before Sloan is finished making his rounds here in April, he will probably bring someone back to Raleigh with him who can jump right into those locker room arguments.