Howard's James Ratiff and Larry Spriggs have perfected one of the prettiest plays in college basketball. Ratiff rebounds a missed opponent's shot and looks downcourt for Spriggs, a 6-foot-7 senior, who is already at halfcourt.

The 6-8 Rattif dribbles fancily down the middle. When he reaches the top of the key, he floats a lazy pass to Spriggs, who is nearing the apex of a leap that brings him eye level with the basket rim. Spriggs then softly volleys the pass back to an already airborne Ratiff, who catches the ball with both hands, swivels his hips and tomahawks the ball into the hoop.

The play works with one or two defenders. Ratiff and Spriggs run it every game. They are playing above the crowd with the dexterity of 6-foot guards. The entire gymnasium can see it coming. But there is no preventing it. The "Dunk Patrol," led by Ratiff has struck again. He and Spriggs have so many dunks after only five games (Howard is 2-3) that the Bison publicists are thinking of keeping dunk statistics.

"Sometimes when we take a large lead, we lapse into complacency, and the thing that gets us going again is some kind of creative dunk," Ratiff said after Howard's 15-point victory over Mississippi Valley State Saturday night.

Too many lapses and not enough dunks caused Howard to lose three games on a season-opening road tour through the South that took some luster off the Bison's preseason ranking by some pollsters as the nation's best black college team.

Ratiff, a junior from Eastern High School, returned home from the University of Tennesee after one year of homesickness. "He's a city guy without a doubt," said Howard Coach A.B. Williamson. Last year, his first at Howard, he was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's player of the year for averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game and helping Howard win the conference championship.

After five games this season, he is leading the team with nearly 10 rebounds and 18 points per game. Six weeks of experience this summer in the tough Urban Coalition League have helped Ratiff become a better ballhandler. He is not shy about driving half the court or shooting off the dribble.

"His shooting is the only phase of his game that he hasn't gotten together just yet," Williamson said. "He's been tentative the first few games in taking the middle-range jumper, but he's been doing other things -- rebounding, passing, making less turnovers -- that are just as important to the team."

Ratiff is shooting only 40 percent, "but I see solid signs of his coming out of it," said Williamson. "I hope (tonight) is the game he breaks out of the so-called outside shooting slump."

Williamson was referring to tonight's intracity matchup pitting University of the District of Columbia and Howard at 8 in the D.C. Armory. Ratiff will be assigned to contend with the Firebird's skillful showman Michael Britt, a 6-7 forward who can score bunches of points on any defender.

"That matchup goes two ways," warned Williamson. "Britt better be prepared to play some defense against Ratiff, too. But we may decide to play a zone instead of man-to-man on defense. I'm not divulging any strategy until we take the floor."

"Britt will be the quickest player I'll face all year," Ratiff said. "He's a great passer and at 6-7 he likes to take the ball off the boards and dribble all the way downcourt. My main objective will be to slow him down on the fast break."

Ratiff observed that the front lines may nullify each other, putting more pressure on the guards. "Last year everybody talked about the big men before the game," he said, "then Hawkeye Daniels hurt us (Howard won a close game). tA lot may depend on how (Bison guard) Bernard Perry shoots."

Williamson and his players won't admit as much, but the Firebird-Bison game, which could draw a capacity crowd of 10,000, is certainly more than just another game. "Let's not make this thing a city championship," Spriggs pleaded with a smile. "This won't be like a North Carolina A&T game," he said.

But the contest will be the only major area game being played tonight, and a win, expecially for UDC, would help legitimize Firebird basketball. Having lost its first three games, Howard would like to destroy any rumors about their being "overrated" by destroying UDC.

Said Ratiff, "UDC doesn't play a lot of Division 1 schools, but they have the talent to do so. This is just another game for us, but a big opportunity for them."