Last March in Providence, minutes after Georgetown had been eliminated from the NCAA postseason tournament, an air of confidence lingered in the Hoya locker room. After all, come November, the entire starting lineup would return, joined by three high school all-Americas.
Mike Frazier, the only senior on the team, sat in the middle of that locker room and said: "Georgetown will be the Beast of the East."
November is here. Anticipation and expectations on the Hilltop are greater than ever. Georgetown already has replaced Maryland as the top college basketball attraction in the Washington area; the Hoyas have been picked as the nation's best team by at least one national publication.
With 7-foot Patrick Ewing, 6-7 William Martin and 6-6 Anthony Jones joining a lineup that includes senior all-America guard Eric Floyd, Georgetown should dominate the Big East Conference, if not the nation.
A year ago, Maryland and its coach, Lefty Driesell, grabbed the national attention. That team, also picked No. 1 in at least one preseason national poll, flopped with a veteran lineup. And this season, Driesell has less returning talent than any team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. "In 26 years I ain't never coached a team that didn't have one returning player who scored in double figures," he said. "This is the biggest challenge in my coaching career."
Adrian Branch, a 6-8 freshman from De Matha, will start at the quick forward position. He is easily Maryland's most talented player. "Adrian can throw it in from under his arm, do 360 (degree) dunks, bounce it off the glass and slam it in between defenders -- just about everything," Driesell said. "But I told him not to do any of that stuff unless we're leading by 30 points. I can coach him, though. He's left-handed, like me."
A key to Maryland's success will be the performance of senior guard Reggie Jackson.
"I can already feel a closeness among the players," Jackson said. "We don't have the four big guys any more (Buck Williams, Albert King, Ernie Graham and Greg Manning), so we'll have to go about this season differently. I think we'll surprise some people."
American University's toughest task will be measuring up to the 24-victory season it had last year. However, the difference is very noticeable at practice. A year ago, the second team beat the starting team consistently and had an experienced group of players, including current starters Gordon Austin and Mark Nickens. Now that second unit struggles, especially with four freshmen learning the college game.
Nickens, who became a starter last season only because of Boo Bowers' injury, returns as one of the area's top three or four players, according to an informal survey of players and coaches. Their ranking: Virginia's Ralph Sampson, Floyd and a tie between Nickens and forward Mike Britt of the University of the District of Columbia.
Virginia, which went 29-3 in 1980, also will find duplicating its record nearly impossible, even with Sampson, the Associated Press player of the year, back for his junior season.
Sampson can't dominate a season by himself, but the Cavaliers can come close to the final four again if a good recruiting class comes through, especially forwards Jim Miller (who has had mononucleosis) and Tim Mullen.
"Any time you've got a Sampson to build around, you can't be all that bad," says Coach Terry Holland.
"If I didn't think we couldn't get back to the final four, I would have turned professional," Sampson said.
Two more local teams -- Howard and UDC -- flirted briefly with national prominence last season and both should be improved.
Howard, following its first NCAA tournament appearance, will find it tough to repeat its Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship with Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T having improved greatly. Larry Spriggs has graduated, but four starters, including MEAC player of the year James Ratiff, return.
UDC won 17 games last season without a home gymnasium. The Firebirds are already practicing in their new gym on the Van Ness Campus. Earl Jones, a 6-foot-11 sophomore with the moves of a quick forward, will play power forward opposite Britt, with no fewer than four candidates still competing for the center position. "Earl playing forward ain't nothing new," Coach Wil Jones said. "He ain't never played center in our offense. But no damn body will listen to me."
Nevertheless, Earl Jones was the Division II leading rebounder last season. Ken Payne, a transfer from Rutgers, should become the playmaking guard the Firebirds need.
George Washington, which had the worst record of any local school last season, should be the most improved team, especially with 6-9 freshman Mike Brown. First-year coach Gerry Gimelstob "fashions himself a Bobby Knight clone," one Big Ten assistant coach said of the former Indiana assistant.
The Colonials' practices have been rough, sometimes bloody, as Gimelstob tries to "install a whole new way of playing basketball." One thing is sure: the Colonials will play aggressive, man-to-man defense.
Navy will again look for three or four upsets and play ultra-disciplined ball, with guards David Brooks and Rob Romaine and forward Myron Simons providing most of the offense.
George Mason has the team nobody knows -- yet. Center Andre Gaddy and guard Terry Henderson, both of whom missed most of the 1980 season with injuries, are back for their first full campaign under second-year Coach Joe Harrington. His first recruiting class has a year's experience and the Patriots, if they develop, have the absolutely easiest path -- but one tough game -- to the NCAA tournament.
They will make the ECAC South playoffs almost automatically, meaning their season-long goal will be to beat Old Dominion in that event at Norfolk's Scope. That is likely to get Harrington where his old boss Driesell ain't: the NCAA round of 48.