People always ask Wil Jones about big-time college basketball in ways that suggest he is a poor little lost sheep whose credentials are suspect because his team plays in the outer circle of oblivion called Division II. Well, nobody should feel sorry for Wil Jones, who will walk right up to that Division I bear and bite it by the nose.

You have to love Wil Jones. This poor little lost sheep will whip you by 20 before you can count I, II. Wore a tuxedo to coach the last regular-season home game for his University of District of Columbia team. Talks more than Joe Theismann on a roll. Coaches his Firebirds with an ounce of restraint (they fast break 24 hours a day) and a ton of confidence.

"We are as good as the teams ranked in the top 20 in Division I," he said. "If we played those teams all the time, we'd win 20, 22 games in any league. Some of those leagues, we'd be automatic qualifiers to the NCAA."

There followed a laugh/smirk of condescension, a sharpie's knowing chuckle that just because some folks have something you don't, that doesn't make them better except in the minds of dummies who probably think Magic Johnson is a new floor wax.

Some sharpies believe UDC is the best college team in a town with six Division I teams, including those named Georgetown and Maryland.

"We could beat every one of them," Jones said. "They believe it, too."

Is that why none will play UDC?

"Evidently we're too tough a II for them. Morgan State's a II that played Georgetown even for a half this year. We beat Morgan by 51."

Before we get to other questions, such as Earl Jones' future, we shouldn't leave Wil Jones hanging as if baiting the big bears of Division I with challenges to their manhood. The coach believes in "sharp and coy," to quote him, and he's only honing his coy sharpness by suggesting the bears avoid him.

He agrees with John Thompson and Lefty Driesell, et al, that it isn't time to put UDC on their schedules.

"John and I are close enough friends that I know we'll play when the time comes that it won't kill him and it won't kill me. It wouldn't help me if John came in and kicked the cowboy crap out of me. And it wouldn't do him any good to lose to me before UDC is recognized as really top-flight. I have no problem with that. I understand that, and I understand Howard and George Washington and George Mason."

Jones would like this city's teams, including UDC, to play a preseason tournament. But that's for later, as is any intention of moving UDC from Division II to I.

"As the university grows, it's a definite possibility," Jones said. "Right now I don't even have a secretary. How in the hell can we go Division I? We're riding buses, we ain't flying planes. We'd need a place for players to live, a place to eat.

"Division I? I ain't crazy. When I tell the university the figure to go Division I, they might make me a zero."

And that figure is?

"A half-million dollars."

Because basketball now is that kind of big business and because integration is suffered gladly when it is profitable, there no longer is the great Division II reservoir of talent that gave the pros Willis Reed, Sam Jones and Earl Monroe.

But when Wil Jones runs his mouth about his Firebirds' ability, don't be misled by any idea the coach is yakkety-yakking in hopes the noise distracts us from a real inspection of his team.

It is possible, maybe even proper, to believe UDC is not only the nation's best Division II team but also is level in first-string quality with the big-timers' top 20 and (yes) flat out the best in Washington.

They are 25-2, with 20 straight victories, averaging 94.4 points a game while giving up 80. They are prohibitive favorites, as the nation's No. 1-ranked Division II team, to win a second straight NCAA championship. They will begin the tournament Friday night at UDC against Randolph-Macon.

UDC comes with Earl Jones, a 7-foot center who could start for anybody in town, including the Bullets. The leading scorer is Michael Britt, a 6-7 forward who works the open court with breathtaking flair. Point guard Kenny Payne is a Division I transfer (from Rutgers) who runs the offense flawlessly.

The other forward is 6-6 Johnny Jones, and the next two guards are Greg Carson and Neal Robertson. These six do the heavy work, but Wil Jones says this team is better this year because the bench provides better practice competition.

As for Earl Jones' future, he is a junior who might turn pro if someone offered him $1 million for three years.

"Earl is as good as any big man in college today," Wil Jones said. "He can do everything. Runs, jumps, shoots, rebounds--and passes. When he gets the ball, our kids go crazy because they know if they get open, Slim will get the ball to them."

Earl Jones played for the U.S. in last summer's World University games and hopes to make the Olympic team in '84. "That's his dream, the Olympics," Wil Jones said. "But if he gets a fair offer from the pros, he'd have to make a decision. He's not going to just say cold turkey he wants to go the pros."

No poor little lost sheep at UDC.