When Howard opens defense of its Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title Friday, more than a third straight league championship will be at stake for the Bison.

For the second consecutive season, the winner of this three-day tournament, being played in the Winston-Salem Coliseum, will receive an automatic bid into the NCAA championship tournament.

Howard, seeded second (15-10, 9-3 in the league), meets a team it already has beaten twice this season, fifth-seeded Maryland-Eastern Shore (6-19, 3-9), at 5 p.m. Then it will be Bethune-Cookman against South Carolina State at 7 and Delaware State meeting Florida A & M at 9. The semifinals are Saturday night at 6 and 8 p.m. and the final is Sunday at 4 p.m.

Top-seeded North Carolina A & T gets a bye in the first round.

After the Bison won the tournament last year, the team was routed by lightly regarded Wyoming in the first round of the NCAA.

Howard senior forward James Ratiff and his teammates want to atone for that embarrassment. The 6-foot-9 Ratiff is the most recognized and talked-about player in the conference. Some NBA scouts say Ratiff will be drafted as high as the third round.

"It's always been a dream of mine to play in an NBA All-Star Game," Ratiff said. "But right now, there are more important things to think about. We have to win this tournament and get back to the NCAAs so we can restore our pride and show people that we are a good basketball team."

Howard can be a good basketball team, but doesn't always play like one. Coach A.B. Williamson has been disappointed at times in the lack of leadership from his seniors.

Team morale weakened when homesick forward Kevin Thomas, Howard's prize freshman recruit, left school at the end of his first semester.

"At one point, everybody was pointing fingers at each other and nobody had any type of leadership role," Ratiff said. "But then we lost a game to Liberty Baptist and it seemed to shake us up. I remember thinking to myself, 'How do we expect to be competitive in the MEAC and go back to the NCAA tournament if we can't beat Liberty Baptist?'

"I think that was a turning point in our season. The seniors started to react with a little more authority and show more leadership. No more goofing around in practice. That loss helped us wake up in time."

Ratiff, who is averaging 20 points per game, was MEAC's player of the year as a sophomore and is the player most often associated with Howard basketball. "We've got several talented players on this team," said Ratiff. "This is no one-man team."

Ratiff talks quickly and doesn't waste words, the same style in which he plays. The biggest criticism of Ratiff's game is that he tries to play like a small, wing forward (away from the basket) instead of using his quick moves to move closer to the basket, producing higher percentage shots.

"I don't try to pattern my game after anybody," Ratiff said. "I still would like to be a big guard. But I like to play all over the court.

"To win this tournament, I'll play anywhere Coach wants me to play. I look at games on television on Saturday afternoon and see Maryland and Georgetown--guys I played with and against in high school and summer leagues . . . guys who I know are no more talented than many of the players at Howard. There's no reason we can't play on television one day soon.

"We owe it to ourselves and Howard University to play as well as we can in this tournament, so we can get another shot at one of those big schools in the NCAA. There's a whole lot at stake."