For the true college basketball freak the big day is three days away. Not the NCAA finals, not even the ACC Tournament. Wednesday, practice starts for NCAA basketball teams and any real basketball fanatic knows the next six weeks will go a long way toward deciding who is still bouncing the ball the last week in March when they hand out the trophies.

During that time, with no games to worry about, no scouting to do, college coaches will find out who can play and who can't. They will find out who has improved and who has gone backward.

"You find out in October and November who your horses are," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said.

Driesell has plenty of horses but he is not the only local coach who has the talent to make it to the 48-team NCAA Tournament in March. Georgetown, George Washington and Howard all have legitimate NCAA hopes with the Hoyas and Bison, like the Terps, coming off 20-victory seasons. On Wednesday, they all start again. Here's how Washington area schools look on the first day.

MARYLAND: The Terps will be ranked in everyone's preseason top five and will be favored to successfully defend their ACC regular season title. With Albert King, Ernest Graham, Buck Williams and Greg Manning back from last season's eighth-ranked, 24-7 team and transfer Charles Pittman adding depth along with freshmen Pete Holbert and Steve Rivers, Driesell's team can play with anyone.

GEORGETOWN: Gone are Craig Shelton and John Duren, two of the best players the area has seen. But weep not for John Thompson. Eric (Sleepy) Floyd, who may be one of the five best guards in the country, returns and will pair in the back court with superfrosh Freddie Brown, a whiz from New York City. There is depth up front with all three of last year's centers back along with the very underrated Eric Smith, the man who shut down King in the NCAA regionals last year.

GEORGE WASHINGTON: Five lettermen, including center Mike Zagardo, are gone but Coach Bob Talent, entering his seventh year in Foggy Bottom, hopes the returning players and a good recruiting year can provide improvement on last year's 15-11 record. The best of the returnees are Curtis Jeffries and Oscar "I can jump over the Washington Monument" Wilmington. No one on the roster averaged in double figures for GW last year. The five new players, the best of whom may be transfer Wilbert Skipper, will have to help. p

HOWARD: Coach A. B. Williamson's team won 21 games last year and the MEAC championship, then went nowhere in postseason while teams that barely finished above .500 went to the Nit. That won't happen this year because the Meac champion will get an automatic NCAA bid. With James Ratiff and Larry Spriggs back, the Bison should have an excellent shot at picking up that bid.

CATHOLIC: The last year in Division 1 for the Cardinals could be a long one. As soon as he learned that the school had decided to drop to Division 3 for the 1981-82 season, Coach Jack Kvancz began looking for other schools for his players. Mike Neville, last year's leading scorer, is now at GW. Bill Dooley, the second leading scorer, is now at Richmond. That leaves Kvancz with solid seniors Bill Dankos and Joe Colletta and a lot of eager kids who will have a hard time improving on last year's 9-19 record.

AMERICAN: With Russel (Boo) Bowers back for his senior year, Coach Gary Williams' offense will be similar to last season's -- Bowers for the jumper, Bowers for the drive and Bowers on the spinning, twisting, double pump. Bowers should have more help this year, however, with three transfers of a year ago, Mark Nickens, David Ridley and Fernando Aunon, becoming eligible. Williams hopes they can help produce improvement on last year's 14-13 record.

University of the District of Columbia: UDC is the new powerhouse in town thanks largely to the decision by 6-foot-10 Earl Jones to throw his lot in with Coach Wil Jones for at least a year. Jones, along with Michael Britt, should make the Firebirds one of the best -- and most entertaining -- Division 2 schools in the country. UDC will play its eight home games in the D.C. Armory, including a game against Howard, the only local Division 1 school Jones could get on the schedule.