All those autumn afternoons in the gym without coaching supervision become structured Thursday when the NCAA allows college basketball practice to begin. All nine major teams in the Washington area start that day, as does Catholic, dropping from Division I to Division III.
It will be a season of new faces and new positions locally and nationally. There is one new coach -- George Washington's Gerry Gimelstob, an assistant to Bob Knight at Indiana last season. There are a number of new players, most notably the Georgetown trio of Patrick Ewing, William Martin and Anthony Jones that gives the Hoyas one of the best recruiting years in the nation and a likely ranking in the preseason national top 10.
Maryland, ranked among the nation's top five teams going into last season, will be hard-pressed to finish among the top five in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season. Georgetown, Maryland, Howard and Virginia made the 48-team NCAA tournament a year ago and American, after a school-record 24 victories, played in the National Invitation Tournament.
Except for Maryland, repeats are quite possible, and the University of the District of Columbia -- which won 14 of its last 15 games and has Earl Jones and Michael Britt returning -- is expected to contend for the Division II championship.
That leaves Navy and George Mason, coming off mediocre seasons under first-year coaches, with the potential to improve with young players. This especially is the case at George Mason, which had a number of injuries last season. There is one new name to remember there: Mike Shannon. He will be as valuable to the Patriots as Ewing is to Georgetown.
Here is a closer look at the Division I and II schools, in alphabetical order:
AMERICAN: Coach Gary Williams is trying to figure out what to do as an encore. "People look at last year's record and think we've built a powerhouse," Williams said. "But at a school like AU, you gotta fight every year." Four of five starters return, including Mark Nickens and Ed Sloane, but the key to the Eagles' success is good play from their little "big men": 6-foot-6 Juan Jones, 6-7 transfer Andre Adams, 6-8 freshman J.D. Springer and 6-7 returnee Ferdie Aunon.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: The Firebirds (18-8) complained loudly a year ago when they did not make the Division II tournament. "Low profile this year," said Coach Wil Jones. "Everybody knows we're here now." Either 6-9 sophomore Cedric Caldwell or 6-11 freshman Al Holland will play on the front line with the 6-10 Jones, the nation's leading Division II rebounder last year. Coach Jones recruited no guards, so he must be satisfied with Weaver Blondin, Greg Carson and Hawkeye Daniels.
GEORGE MASON: The seven new faces on Coach Joe Harrington's court in Fairfax include two lettermen, 6-10 Andre Gaddy and 6-4 Terry Henderson, both red-shirted after serious injuries. Also new is Shannon, a 6-7 power forward who transferred a year ago from Centenary and dominated team scrimmages. Last year 6-3 Ricky Dillard started at center; now he is a small forward. Andy Bolden, ECAC-South rookie of the year, is back at point guard. The team is much better, but the schedule is tougher, Harrington says.
GEORGE WASHINGTON: "The first four weeks we will teach the players an entirely new way of playing basketball," said Gimelstob, who took over an 8-19 team. "We'll have a system similar to that of Indiana, adjusted to our personnel, of course. We'll emphasize defense, passing, blocking out and rebounding. I have no idea who will start, but Wilbert Skipper (leading returning scorer at 13.9) and Mike Brown will probably contribute immediately." Brown, 6-9, 225-pound freshman from East Orange, N.J., was a prep all-America. "There isn't a player in the country I'd rather have going into my first year," Gimelstob said.
GEORGETOWN: The 7-foot Ewing, Martin and Jones join all five starters from a 20-12, NCAA tournament team. Coach John Thompson says the ball will go inside more, though not necessarily to shoot. "I'd like to work on running the ball more and applying more pressure defensively," he said. "We'll want to improve, not really change. People say we have an experienced team, but if the freshmen start outplaying the upperclassmen, we quickly become an inexperienced team." The returning starting five consists of Ed Spriggs, Mike Hancock, Eric Smith, Sleepy Floyd and Fred Brown. Reserves Jeff Bullis and Gene Smith also played a lot last season.
HOWARD: Ten lettermen return, including four starters. But Coach A.B. Williamson lost star forward Larry Spriggs off a 17-12 team that won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament to gain the NCAA tourney for the first time. The starters back are James Ratiff (17.8 points), Bernard Perry (13), Rodney Wright and Lawrence Norfleet. Also back is center James Terry. Top freshmen: Kevin Thomas, a 6-9, 230-pound forward from Neptune, N.J. (13 points, 13 rebounds), and Ed Swails, a 6-3 sophomore transfer from Seattle U. and McKinley Tech. Howard may run three guards (Perry, Wright and Swails) this season.
MARYLAND: Coach Lefty Driesell lost his top four players, including Albert King and Buck Williams, both chosen in the first round of the National Basketball Association draft. He has no returning player who scored in double figures and says his Terrapins must be rated, for now, as one of the three worst teams in the ACC. "Statistically, we're in trouble," Driesell said. "The first couple of weeks, all we'll work on is defense." The key players will be forward Charles Pittman, guards Dutch Morley and Reggie Jackson, and center Taylor Baldwin. Some key statistics: Maryland has only 14 points returning to the lineup; ACC opponents average 40 points returning. The Terrapins are returning eight rebounds per game and the seven other conference schools are returning an average of 20 rebounds.
NAVY: Second-year Coach Paul Evans lost only one starter from a 9-16 team and already has decided on two major position changes: 6-6 senior Myron Simons moves from forward to center, so that 6-6 sophomore Gary Price, a good outside shooter, can take advantage of that strength at forward. The Mids are strongest at guard, with veterans David Brooks (No. 1 scorer the last two seasons) and Rob Romaine at the second guard and freshman Sly Mata of Phoenix a likely starter at the point.
VIRGINIA: Virginia probably won't do as well as last season, when the Cavaliers were 29-4 and lost to North Carolina in the NCAA semifinals. But it is tough to say how much they will fall off. Ralph Sampson, the 7-4 center, again passed up the NBA's money to stay another year. The problem is replacing Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker, who combined for 29 points a game last season and almost automatic free throws. Junior Craig Robinson and freshmen Tim Mullen, Jim Miller and Dan Merrifield are the candidates after a recruiting year Coach Terry Holland calls his best overall.