Jack Kvancz says he has a drink or two after a basketball game only if his Catholic University team wins. At this rate, Kvancz will be drier than Death Valley in July.

In his sixth season as head coach at the Northeast Washington school, Kvancz is living a no-win, yet-try-to-win nightmare created by last year's decision to change athletics from the high competition of NCAA Division I to the relaxed Division III.

The CU Cardinals have only two players who can compete on a major college level. But the schedule is challenging and loaded with Division I teams. The switch to Division III comes next year. It's like being invited to a gala, and remembering you gave your tuxedo to the Salvation Army.

There was a time when CU appeared to have turned a corner. Krancz became athletic director as well as basketball coach in 1975 and got the the program moving from Division II to the big time. Then last year, the administration decided to deemphasize sports to save money. Instead of playing for scholarships and meager gate receipts, CU would play for fun and meager gate receipts.

Athletic scholarships were out. Three starters from last year's CU team transferred to schools with Division I programs. And oh, Brookland Gym. It's small, but ugly. When it came to recruiting, Kvancz might as well have waved at windmills.

The result hasn't been a surprise. "Somebody has got to understand that these kids are going through hell," said Kvancz, who looks tough and often sounds tough, but not now.

"And they're handling it well. It's just a tribute to the kids,"

If the kids are going through hell, it's worse for Kvancz and Ed McNamara, his assistant. A player at Boston College, a top assistant at Brown, and the man who would lead Catholic to greater glories at a midlevel of Division I, Kvancz is suffering the pain of dashed dreams.

"Sure, last year, I was hurt, beaten," he said of the decision by university president Dr. Edmund Pellegrino to cut back the program. "It was so easy to feel sorry for myself. So easy to be a martyr. That's what I was.During the summer, it got better. I thought, 'Hell with it. Let's just go out and play.' But we weren't playing yet.Practice was easy. We worked our tail off. But there was no one to play against."

When CU won two of its first six games, including a victory over Harvard, it looked as if it really wasn't so bad. Wait. Six-foot-10 center Dan Murray hurt his knee. Then he broke his ankle trying to come back. That was against Navy, a game the Cardinals lost by 48 points.

"That's when I woke up and said 'Let's start reassessing what we've got, and what we've got to accomplish,'" Kvancz rumbled in his New England baritone. "My No. 1 goal is to not embarrass the kids, myself or the staff, and still try to win."

The plan was this: Slow it down and spread out the offense. Hold the ball until the other team gets impatient and lets you score an easy basket. "It can't only be a good shot," Kvancz said. "It's got to be a damn good shot."

The strategy, successfully used by Kvancz in previous years with better talent, worked at Colgate. It took three overtimes, and the crowd hated it, but CU won, 38-37, setting off a wild postgame celebration.

"It was the greatest thing that happened," Kvancz said. "We had 12 kids saying 'I understand what this guy's trying to do.' There were some football players outside the locker room. One of them said we were acting like we had won the Super Bowl. I said, 'For us, pal, we did.'"

The success of the spread was tempered, however, by successive losses to William and Mary, Fairleigh Dickinson and Rider. It still must be executed. But Kvancz is committed to it for the rest of the season.

"Do you think I want the kids embarrassed?" Kvancz asked. "I have to come up with junk and do whatever I can to keep us in the game . . . I tell them we can not only be in it, but we can win. As long as the kids can handle it, I'm gonna try to win."

The theme with Kvancz is always the kids: If they can handle it, I can; if I can just keep them together. He is, despite the adversity, succeeding.

"Whatever you do he looks out for you," said senior guard Joe Colletta, one of the two remaining scholarship players. "I've felt like packing it in but I'll be the first one to stick up for him."

Colletta, from northern New Jersey, is streetwise and candid. His play is characterized by aggressive, if not exactly stylish, drives to the basket amidst a tangle of bodies. He speaks the same way -- bluntly.

"Yeah, I get a negative attitude, but it's toward the administration," he said in his Dead End Kid accent. "For them to go back on their word, for what they did to Kvancz. They promised him this, they promised him that. Big time, new gym. Now he's got to call kids he recruited and say he can't give them a scholarship. Do you know how embarrasing that is?"

Bill Dankos, a senior forward from Rockville and the other player on scholarship, transferred from Penn State. When he enrolled in 1977, CU basketball was on the rise. Now it's on the other side of the hill, picking up speed. Yet there are no regrets.

"I like it here a lot," he said. "Basketball isn't everything. I have no complaints." Dankos stopped for a second. "Though it's easy to complain now."

Kvancz depends on Colletta and Dankos, for more than what they can do with a basketball.

"Me and Bill know what we have to do," Colletta said. "Everyone is looking up to us, especially with Danny (murray) out. There's a lot more pressure on us. The team is looking to us as leaders. But one thing about this team is that everyone gets along great. Even if we do lose all the time."

When the move to Division III was announced last year, it was reported that Kvancz would leave. He looked around, he said, but nothing opened. The irony is that Kvancz turned down jobs a couple of years ago, but decided to stay at CU to oversee his rising program.

His ability goes unquestioned. Watching the Cardinals lose to Fairleigh Dickinson last week, a scout shook his head and said, "You know, I've known Kvancz eitht or 10 years and he can really coach the game. I've seen him stay in games he should never have been in."

The scout, Alan Srebnick, an administrator in the George Mason University athletic department, used to be an assistant coach with Jim Valvano at Ionaa and with Jim Lynam at American University. "When Catholic lost to GW last year in overtime," Srebnick continued, "I thought it was the bestcoached game I had ever seen."

What that means is that a ton of caring and motivation and gimmicks still is no substitute for talent. So Kvancz already is thinking of next year, when Division III play starts. He says he knows how to recruit without athletic scholarships -- he did it at Brown -- and the talk is of a new gym. But there still is this season, about which he said, "It's the toughest and the hardest I've ever worked. I think Ed and I have done a good job of keeping the kids together."