Last spring three former De Matha basketball assistants marched off to Lexington, Va., in hopes of improving the nation's worst basketball program.

And like hapless freshmen who must withstand a full first year of hazing by upperclassmen, Marty Fletcher, Bernie McGregor and Joe Cantafio try to keep a positive attitude about their present state of affairs.

Everyone agrees that things are getting better, but the Keydets are still 1-17.

The winters are long and lonely at the all-male Virginia Military Institute. Diversions are hard to come by and when the Keydets sank to a miserable 1-25 record last season, Athletic Director Tom Joynes knew it was time for a change.

He fired popular but unsuccessful alumnus Charlie Schmaus and hired Fletcher, hoping the new coach would bring some of Morgan Wootten's winning ways to VMI. Before accepting the VMI job, Fletcher assisted Norm Sloan and Jim Valvano for four years at North Carolina State.

A top local recruiter who brought Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey to State, Fletcher would need the persuasive powers of Vito Corleone to interest most top prospects in an all-male military school with a longtime loser image.

And Mark Vest, the Southern Conference rookie of the year, had seen enough and transferred out last June to avoid a brutal schedule with games against Virginia, Notre Dame, Tennessee-Chattanooga and James Madison.

Changing the perception that VMI is not a perpetual basketball dog is not going to be easy.

Starting late in the recruiting race, Fletcher confounded critics with the best recruiting season in the school's history. His first move was to hire McGregor and Cantafio.

The De Matha connection in place, they blanketed the East for six weeks and signed all-America guard Mike Huffman; 6-foot-5 swing man Gay Elmore, the West Virginia high school player of the year; Jim Shanley, at 6-10 the tallest player in Keydet history, and two talented local players, Tommy McHugh of St. John's and Hayfield's Jerome Butler.

"Our goal wasn't just warm bodies, but quality players," Fletcher said. "We were fortunate enough to find five outstanding student-athletes who had not yet committed."

"There is a solid basketball tradition here," said Fletcher, one of three former Wootten assistants who are college head coaches. (UT-Chattanooga's Murray Arnold and Catholic University's Jack Bruen are the others.) "Ron Carter led VMI to the NCAA Eastern Regional finals five years ago and made all-America. He later played for the Lakers."

There have been isolated seasons of glory, but they have been the exception rather than the rule. Not since 1923 has a basketball coach left VMI with a winning career record.

"Some people might think that recruiting at an all-male, military school would be a hindrance, but it's really not," Fletcher said. "I ask parents if they don't they want their son to attend a school where the distractions are limited, where he'll be monitored in his studies and, in four years, he'll have a great degree and a sure job with the armed services at his option."

The Cinderella story is not yet complete, however, as the young Keydets still lose with a consistency that is all too familiar.

Yet there are differences. Losing is never fun but don't tell Fletcher and his staff. Their confidence has infected the entire region. The Keydets think that they have a good thing going and eventually things will turn around.

No shrinking violet, Fletcher has even managed to land a statewide basketball television program, not bad for a rookie coach at a small school. The show is as off the cuff and loose as Fletcher himself, with features like the all-injury and all-blow-dry teams that break up the Xs and Os monotony that doom so many coaches' shows.

The school is wholeheartedly behind this new gotta-get-better-'cause-we-can't-get-worse mentality. Even VMI's superintendent, Gen. Sam Walker, joins in the merriment, masquerading as the team mascot kangaroo at a recent pep rally.

When the Keydets beat Emory & Henry, 75-70, on Dec. 13 it was as if they had clinched an NCAA playoff berth, with an impromptu celebration that shook the rafters at Cameron Hall.

Despite their record, the Keydets are better than last season and bear a striking resemblance to De Matha's pressing, fast-break teams.

"If nothing else, we're playing all-out and when you play your hardest, good things just seem to happen to you. Morgan and his success at De Matha taught me that," said Fletcher. "We're very young and still learning, but if any team doesn't take us seriously they'll be in trouble. We're nobody's doormat anymore."