By every reasonable estimate, Maryland versus Georgetown here Friday night in the NCAA East Regional tournament is the most important game in the history of Washington-area collegiate basketball.

Individually, the schools have had bigger games, Georgetown having been runner-up in the NCAA tournament 37 years ago and Maryland having been a few layups shy of the final four in 1975. But never have two teams so highly regarded played each other with so much at stake.

"Put it this way," said Bob Frailey, athletic director at American University. "I can almost guarantee you can get anyone you want at home after 9:30 p.m. Friday. And if you're smart, you'll call at halftime.

"I haven't said anything like that about an event since Monday Night Football. That's how big it is. I can't tell you how many places I've gone and met people who, knowing I'm an athletic director, asked what I thought of Georgetown-Maryland.

"Which is great, for the game, for the area, for all the colleges."

It is too simplistic -- but not by as much as you might think -- to insist that all of Washington-area college basketball can be divided into two parts: before Lefty Driesell and after Lefty Driesell.

Folks were, of course, shooting jumpers and double dribbling before the Left-Hander paraded into College Park nearly 12 years ago. Probably, there were better coaches, men who understood the game and who appreciated it more.

But who also were dull.

Driesell crackles. He can be everything but ignored. First he made himself a compelling attraction. People paid decent money to watch him stomp on sport coats. Then he made Maryland impossible to avoid.

And Maryland created Georgetown, or at least the Georgetown that has come from occasionally losing fewer than 10 games a season to a consistent NCAA tournament team the last four years under John Thompson.

To avoid being buried by Maryland, Georgetown made the sacrifices of money and admission standards necessary to reach the highest levels of semiamateur basketball.

"When I first came to Georgetown (in 1972)," Thompson said after practice today, "a lot of (area) schools wanted to consolidate their efforts to oppose Maryland, so we could get attention.

"I was totally opposed . . . I felt we wanted to live or die on our own merits. And how can you join with your competition? Against another competitor? I'm stupid, but I don't think I'm that stupid. That can't work.

"When you start to proportion out the goodies, how will that happen? You can't even do that in a family. My two sons don't share things equally."

So Maryland, on its own, and Georgetown, on its own, have reached the point where this test becomes very special, equal to any the Bullets have played and close to the zenith of all Washington-area games: the Redskins versus Dallas.

Unlike so many youngsters now, John Thompson did not grow up in Washington dreaming of playing Georgetown or Maryland. Being black, he was born athletically ineligible.

Incredibly, neither school had a black basketball player until the early and mid-'60s, or about when Craig Shelton and Albert King were elementary-school age. Much attention was given pioneer Pete Johnson and Billy Jones at Maryland and Bernard White at Georgetown.

"I remember very much what they (Georgetown and Maryland) were like -- from the outside -- when I was growing up," Thompson said. "The schools did not welcome blacks when I was in high school (in the late '50s).

"When I came to Georgetown (as coach), the coach who was there when I was in high school was still there. And he said: 'Heck, we would like to have recruited you, but the atmosphere wasn't right.'

"The Maryland coach (Bud Millikan) was friends with my high school coach (Bob Dwyer). He was a man I liked a lot . . ." His voice trailed off. As to why Washington-area teams generally were mediocre for so long, Thompson said:

"You've got to look at history. Elgin Baylor left Washington to go to school at Seattle. So did John Tresvant. Dave Bing left for Syracuse; John Thompson left for Providence. We all didn't leave because we liked the climate in those places."

That stopped the social comment. Thompson wanted to stay riveted to Georgetown and Maryland, 1980, and suddenly volunteered:

"Of all the Maryland players, the one I would most like to have is Ernest Graham. That may surprise the people who know me as a disciplinarian and think Ernie's somewhat of a free spirit.

"But Ernie's tough. And he's got so much grit."

As Thompson realizes so well, King and Buck Williams are Maryland's most valuable players at the moment. But Graham is likely the pivotal player against Georgetown, depending on whether he is brilliant or bedeviled.

Either extreme is possible.

"I've always said this game'll be a war," Thompson said. He expects a fast pace, adding: "I've never seen a slow war."