Joe Harrington, in his second year as basketball coach at George Mason, has a plan.

When his Patriots lost to Virginia, Maryland and James Madison early in the season, he just shrugged. It was part of the plan.

Now that his team has won five of its last seven, he's just nodding. That's the second part of the plan.

"You have to take some licks if you expect to get on TV and get exposure," Harrington said. "We need to play Virginia and Maryland--even if we get beat. We're trying to establish a program here, and it takes a certain amount of time--no matter how good you are. You have to take your lumps."

The ambitious Patriots (8-9) are not nearly as battered as some might have expected at the season's outset. They upset Virginia Commonwealth, 81-68, and hardly embarrassed themselves against Virginia, Maryland and Old Dominion.

"It's not easy to turn a program around in two years but we're making a lot of progress here," Harrington said. "We're a much better team for playing those tough games early. We're not a pushover, and teams don't expect us to be anymore."

The young players Harrington regards as the hope of the program have begun to produce. Led by Carlos Yates, a 6-foot-5 freshman guard, the Patriots ended an early-season tailspin, in which they fell to 3-7, by winning five in a row at home. Their streak was snapped Wednesday night when they lost to Old Dominion, 71-53, in Norfolk. They lost again Saturday to James Madison, 75-59.

The team scoring leader is Yates, who is averaging 16.7 points a game this season. The nucleus of the team is Yates, Andy Bolden (a point guard who was ECAC South rookie of the year 1980-81 and is scoring 16 points a game this season) and Andre Gaddy (a 6-10 center averaging 14.6 points and eight rebounds a game after sitting out most of last year with an injury).

Harrington is taking his time in building. He wants a Georgetown.

"We're not going for any flash-in-the-pan thing here," he said. "You have to build a pretty solid foundation to have a recognized program that people want to back year in and year out. Georgetown, James Madison, ODU--they're always going to be vying for the NCAA playoffs. Those schools have the kind of program we're going to have here.

"I'm in a position similar to the one (Georgetown Coach) John Thompson was in when he went there, starting from scratch," Harrington said. "I'm not an old person, but I can remember when Georgetown, and teams like James Madison and Old Dominion, did not have very successful programs," he said.

What Thompson received--and Harrington is getting--is a mandate for change from the school's administration.

Harrington arrived in Fairfax almost two years ago, the first full-time coach at George Mason, although the Patriots had been in Division I three years. That was just about the time GMU President George W. Johnson decided basketball was a way to further elevate the school from its humble beginnings of 37 people in a building at Bailey's Crossroads in the 1960s.

Johnson, recognizing the potential of burgeoning Fairfax County, sought to make George Mason the region's school. He set up fund-raising and promotions offices, operations few small schools can afford, and rounded up the financial backing to build a new fieldhouse.

The new fieldhouse could hold 5,100 when it opens in May, but Johnson would prefer not to put in seating. Plans have been developed for a 9,000-seat domed arena on campus to be used for other activities besides basketball. The Virginia legislature is to consider a bond issue this session to fund the project. If all goes according to schedule, the new facility could be built by 1985.

"A lot has been done in a short time here," Harrington said. "The things we've done we've done in two years. To me that's big-time thinking."

George Mason's growth has come almost too quickly. Several athletic department offices are housed in trailers backed up behind the gym. The Patriots, although playing an imposing schedule, must for awhile continue to meet all their big-time opponents on the road because the current gym seats only 2,800.

Yates and Mike Shannon, another promising newcomer, admit even they were surprised they chose George Mason.

"In the back of my mind, I was far from coming here," said Yates.

"My first question was, 'Where is George Mason?' " said Shannon.

"I think there were people who thought we were crazy about all this expansion," Johnson said. "But this is the kind of place where a whole lot can be done with a lot of dispatch. By my nature, I'm not patient, but we're not looking at a short-term thing here. We're going for the long haul."

Undaunted, Johnson and Harrington continue to sell George Mason basketball.

Harrington has had less of a problem convincing prospective players of the school's sincerity. The Patriot schedule helps erase the image of a minor-league program.

Part of Harrington's mandate included improving the schedule, which he did by lining up James Madison, Old Dominion, Maryland, South Carolina and Boston University.

"We have to play these teams. If we don't, how can I sit in Carlos Yates' living room and say, 'Look at the schedule we play. Come here.'?"

Harrington says it may take the Patriots a season or two to jell. Only John Niehoff, Bolden and Ricky Dillard have played an entire season for him before this year. Still, the results are encouraging.

Although he says emphatically that he and Johnson have no timetable for George Mason's success, Harrington suggests it might take only two years to make the NCAA tournament. He's not the only one who's optimistic.

"Georgetown arrived in four or five years--it can be done here in that time," Yates said.

That's the plan, anyway.