It took American University most of last season to achieve credibility as an Eastern basketball power. But many critics considered last year's performance a fluke. Tonight, at Wake Forest, the Eagles hope to attract immediate attention by defeating one of the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Also today, Georgetown will play its first Capital Centre home game at 1:30 p.m. against San Diego State, ranked among the nation's top 20 teams in many surveys.

In another major local contest, vastly improved George Mason visits undefeated Maryland at Cole Field House at 8 tonight.

The last time American played an ACC team, one year ago last night, it was a disaster. The Eagles lost to Maryland, 95-65, and the players refuse to forget their embarrassment.

Wake, playing in Winston-Salem, N.C., is favored, but this time the Eagles are not in awe of an ACC team.

"I really believe we can win down there," said AU guard Eddie Sloane. "They have a bigger name than we do, but that's about it. Of course, our first two opponents (both from Division III) haven't been of Wake's caliber. But we're going to go right at Wake."

For American (2-0) to continue undefeated, Eagles Coach Gary Williams will have to figure out how his team, which lacks height, will neutralize the Demon Deacon front line, which features 6-11 center Jim Johnstone.

AU's biggest man is 6-foot-6, 200-pound center Juan Jones. Forward Ferdie Aunon is a thin 6-7, and forward Mark Nickens, the Eagles' best all-around player, is only 6-4.

Even though no Deacon can outjump or outhustle Jones, AU must get immediate help from 6-9 transfer Andre Adams if the Eagles are to win.

Fortunately for AU, Wake's three big men have played miserably in their first two games; so miserably that Coach Carl Tacy has benched each at various times.

Guy Morgan, 6-8, is averaging only five points, and has taken only four shots from the field. Johnstone is averaging only six rebounds and has taken 10 shots. With such lack of production, it's not hard to see why the Deacons lost their season opener to Richmond.

Wake is still having trouble finding a point guard to replace Frank Johnson (now with the Bullets). Mike Helms, admittedly out of position at the point, is assuming most of the ball-handling duties. He has no assists in two games. Wake has only 10 assists as a team.

By comparison, AU's back court is superb. Sloane is playing better than any guard in the Washington area. He has been able to concentrate on scoring and defense with Gordon Austin playing the point.

AU, with its speed and quickness, will need to run at every opportunity. But to do that, the Eagles need rebounds.

"This Wake Forest game will be a good barometer," Williams said. "And it will also answer a lot of questions, like, 'Can we rebound against a big team?' We learned a lot from the Maryland game last year. We'll learn some things against Wake, but hopefully with a lot better result."

Georgetown Coach John Thompson said his team's biggest problem is "adjusting to ourselves." San Diego State is a good shooting and rebounding team, but the Aztecs' defense is vulnerable. "I'm anxious about this first game at the Capital Centre," Thompson said yesterday.

Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell's preseason emphasis on defense appears to be paying off. The Terrapins are limiting opponents to 41 percent field-goal shooting. "The whole team has pleased me a lot," Driesell said yesterday. His coaching adversary tonight will be Joe Harrington, Driesell's former Maryland assistant. "Mason will be all fired up, I expect," Driesell said.

In other games involving local teams, George Washington will try to rebound from a big loss to Virginia Tech, meeting Siena in the Smith Center at 8 p.m. Howard, also following a big defeat, visits Mississippi Valley State in search of its first victory, at 7:30. Navy plays at Harvard at 2, and the undefeated Virginia Cavaliers travel to Lexington to play Virginia Military tonight.