It was just before Christmas and Howard basketball Coach A.B. Williamson was smiling. Tough losses on the West Coast, to California-Fullerton and San Diego State, had dropped his team to 3-3, but Williamson had seen enough positive signs to convince him his team would be tough by the time conference play began at North Carolina A&T.

Williamson then received the bad news. Three starters--6-foot-2 point guard Charles Johnson, the second-leading scorer; 6-7 forward James Harris, his team's best defensive player, and 6-8 center Chauncey Terry--and a reserve, 6-6 forward James Holton, had been declared academically ineligible. A fifth player, 6-1 guard Dwight Walker, had personal differences with Williamson and was dropped from the team.

"I couldn't believe it," Williamson said. "We preached all year about classwork and how important academics are. We had study hour and tutoring sessions every day for the guys. I found out they just weren't responsible.

"This hurt us because we were very disappointed last year (17-11) and we were determined to work extra hard with this group. We put together what we thought was a good plan for the season."

The season appeared over. Howard was down to nine players; only three had averaged more than 18 minutes per game this season.

"We didn't have enough players to hold practice," recalled Williamson. "Cy (Alexander, assistant coach) and I had to suit up so we could play full court. Luckily, we got a walk-on (Ted LaRose) to come back out. He tried out in the fall, but decided to concentrate on his grades, instead."

Williamson and Alexander started over.

"We started from Square 1," Williamson said. "We had no choice. Those guys were gone and we had to play."

What they came up with should be bottled and sold to struggling coaches everywhere. Howard has won eight of 10 games, despite last night's 52-35 loss to Brooklyn. The Bison (11-5) defeated Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M on the road last weekend and are in first place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with a 7-1 mark.

"The guys believe in themselves," Williamson said. "They have won the close games on the road. I can see the positive vibes on their faces and in their reactions. They don't have any fear of anyone, especially A&T. They beat us down there in a very controversial game (six technical fouls were called against Howard in a 72-60 loss), but the guys know A&T isn't the unbeatable giant. We felt we should have won."

The Bison can take a big step toward winning the MEAC title and self-satisfaction Friday night when they play visiting A&T. Delaware State and A&T are 5-2 and 4-2 in the conference standings.

"We want to beat A&T. On Saturday night, we'll cheer for them when they play Delaware State," Williamson said. "A lot of things can happen this weekend to affect the standings. After the A&T games, we have three to play, two of them at home.

"We just have to be careful how we approach this game. We don't want the guys too fired up and start doing things they haven't been doing."

What Howard has done is cut down on turnovers and mental mistakes, become more aggressive on the backboards, played better defense and taken and made good shots.

The players call themselves the Crash Crew. Gino Warner, who spent his first three seasons as a backup point guard, is the team motivator. The other starters are 6-8 Derek Carraciolo, a 22-year-old freshman; 6-7 freshman Robert Jones; 6-5 junior Kevin Scott, and 6-5 Bernard Perry, the only returning starter. Reserves Jeff Williams, Michael Gibson and David Wynn, who made the winning shot to beat FAMU, 78-76, in overtime Monday night, also have played big roles in the surge.

Williamson has been especially pleased with the play of Carraciolo (eight points, five rebounds) and Warner (four points, four assists).

"We lost experience, depth, a good floor leader and two players who could play man-to-man defense very well," Williamson said. "Everyone starting putting us down because they thought we would begin losing.

"But these guys have really come on fast. They're intelligent, work hard and are totally unselfish. They've come together much quicker than I anticipated. Now everyone is patting them on the back."