Begun only 23 years ago in a rented classroom building at Bailey's Crossroads in Northern Virginia, George Mason University, with an enrollment of 13,300, is the fastest growing and one of the least known universities in the Washington area.

"We're always being confused with Northern Virginia Community College," complains one school administrator.

This year, with the first full-time coach in the school's history, George Mason is making basketball its major athletic endeavor, and a successful season would go a long way toward putting the school on the athletic -- and academic -- map.

With 12 returning lettermen, including last year's three top scorers and rebounders in Andre Gaddy, Terry Henderson and Dave skaff, the Patriots under Coach Joe Harrington believe they have a good shot at meeting that goal and posting a substantial improvement over last year's disappointing 5-21 season.

"I think we have the talent to show a lot of improvement, but we've got some very tough games," said Harrington, who came down from Hofstra to become George Mason's first full-time intercollegiate coach in any sport.

Tough games? "Duke, Old Dominion, Richmond, George Washington," he said. "We're going to have to play very well early. Our toughest games are probably Duke and Old Dominion."

This will be George Mason's third year of Division i basketball. After posting a surprising 17-8 record in their first year of Division i competiton, the Patriots slumped badly last year, but, with the return of all but one letterman, Harrington hopes to reverse that trend this year.

At the end of last season, Coach John Linn announced his retirement from the post he had held on a part time basis for the previous 10 years, and the university announced it would seek its first full-time coach. Harrington, a former Maryland player and assistant to Coach Lefty Driesell, was the leading candidate for the job.

Harrington will build around Gaddy, Henderson and Skaff, all seniors. The coach said: "With virtually the entire team returning and the addition of some talented freshmen, we will have a lot of competition for playing time.

"The key will be the leadership the returning veterans give our younger players and how well this team adjusts to the demands and philosophy of a new head coach. I've asked them to play a lot tougher on defense than they did in the past and to be a lot more physical. Offensively, we've got to play more as a team, not just one on one. We've got to develop a winning attitude, be on time for practice and do well in the classroom."

In his first year of recruiting, Harrington signed Andy Bolden, a 6-0 guard from Norfolk and Ricky Dillard, a 6-5 forward from Bassett, Va. The two freshmen will probably start, the coach said.

Gaddy, a 6-foot-10, 201-pound center recruited four years ago from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School, led the team in scoring and rebounding a year ago.

A 6-4, 201-pound forward, Henderson played his high school basketball in the Bronx and was second in scoring last year (16.2). Skaff, a 6-5, 190-pound forward, averaged 14.4 points but shot only 44 percent from the field.

Strengths: Virtually all of last year's team returns, including top scorers and rebounders.

Weaknesses: The back court.Harrington isn't sure who will get the starting assignments.

Assessment: The Patroits may be playing over their heads against some schools, but they should improve on last year's record.