College basketball practice officially started yesterday at NCAA schools. Here is a look at the area's eight Division I teams. Georgetown: A pretty, blue-bordered national championship banner hung at one end of McDonough Arena. But at the other end, Coach John Thompson said the Hoyas still can play better. "There's a lot of room for improvement, technically," he said. "I've told the players that success often covers up mistakes. We made mistakes and won last year."

Thompson's primary concerns now are rebounding and defense. Part of the rebounding duties, in the absence of Michael Graham (off the team because of academic problems), may be assumed by Ronnie Highsmith, a 25-year-old freshman who could play a lot at power forward.

As Thompson said, a major priority for Georgetown is "who's gonna hit the boards with Pat (all-America center Pat Ewing)." Highsmith, 6 feet 8, seems capable.

"His running time is as good as the guards," Thompson said. "He's an instinctive runner, like Pat. And he's been a jewel as far as personality. But Ronnie has not had a lot of formal experience. That takes time . . . I don't want unrealistic expectations put on him right away, and I don't want to hurt his confidence."

Replacing Graham will probably be easier than replacing Gene Smith, a strong defensive guard for four years. "I don't feel anybody can come right in and do what Gene did," Thompson said, noting that Smith -- with defense as his primary asset -- still is fighting to make the Indiana Pacers of the NBA.

"I can give my sermons now," Thompson said. "Gene had two college scholarship offers, but he identified a role for himself without scoring, and now the Indiana Pacers are having a hard time cutting him. That makes defense a hell of a lot easier to sell." Maryland: Lefty Driesell's 24th college team began practice as he began most of the others -- without a true center. Terry Long, who smiles with a wink when he says he's 6-8, probably will start in the pivot for Maryland this year. His development will be the focal point of much attention in College Park between now and the season opener Nov. 23 against Kansas.

"It would be nice to have Pat Ewing," Driesell said. "But Buck Williams wasn't as big as Ralph Sampson, and Ralph was scared of Buck. I've got to get people scared of Terry Long, or whoever my center's going to be.

"We measured Terry Long's reach with Buck Williams' this summer, trying to convince Terry he could play center. And Terry had the same arm length as Buck, who is the second-best rebounder in the NBA. So there's no reason Terry can't play center."

When Driesell was asked if his son Chuck, a senior, would play more this season, he answered, "If he was a center, he'd probably start." Reminded that Chuck is only 6-3, Lefty said, "I asked for a big guy, so talk to my wife."

Adrian Branch, who may now be an inch taller than Long -- "I better get myself measured again because everybody says I look taller" -- won the team's 1 1/2-mile race and is much stronger. "This is his last go-round," Driesell said. "If he wants to play pro ball, he better produce this year."

The Terrapins, defending ACC champions, will definitely be a forward-oriented team with Branch and junior Len Bias, who many people think may be the best player in the ACC. American University: It's a learning process for the young team (10 freshmen and sophomores), and for third-year Coach Ed Tapscott and his No. 1 assistant, Fran Dunphy. They are learning Spanish, because team meetings are now bilingual since Tapscott recruited 6-5 freshman Manual Nadal from the Dominican Republic.

Until this year, Tapscott never held a team meeting before the first practice. He did yesterday. "I want to impress upon the fellas the need for us to be a good defensive team," he said. "And because we're an extremely young team, it would be good to go through it." One thing he did not stress was last year's 6-22 record, coming after the Eagles won 65 games the three previous seasons.

"Most of our success came at a time we were playing our young guys," Tapscott said. "We have five new guys in the program. With that much youth, we have enthusiasm. That's one of the great things about youth. They don't look too far ahead or behind. I'll be careful not to mention anything about last year. In fact, when I walk into the meeting, I'll say, 'Happy New Year.' "

Assistant Chris Knoche, who took Spanish in high school, was supposed to handle the translation: Feliz Nuevo Ano. But the theme of Tapscott's first practice hardly needed any translation. The Eagles worked on defensive basics, not taking a shot at one stage for almost 70 minutes. "I wanted to impress on them how much I was going to stress defense," Tapscott said. "I will give them the offense today, for about 15 minutes." George Washington: Two minutes before practice was scheduled to start, Max Blank, the 6-9 Soviet immigrant recruit, sat on the trainer's table, electrodes from a muscle stimulator attached to his knee, ice packed on top of it. Blank tore a ligament in an all-star game in April. The knee is healed from the ensuing surgery, but the rehabilitation is not complete.

"It's pretty good," Blank said. "I'm pretty optimistic. I'm going to practice today. I think I'll be able to play this year." Forty-five minutes later, he was on the Smith Center court, running a fast-break drill with a brace supporting the knee. Blank sprinted well, made a cutting move under the basket and scored a reverse layup.

Coach Gerry Gimelstob was upbeat, with good reason. His team is cofavored with Temple in the Atlantic 10 Conference and he has his best material in four seasons at GW, finally with the depth and the perimeter shooters that will make opponents pay the price for double- and triple-teaming star center Mike Brown. But, as always, the emphasis was on defense and hard work.

"It's important to get the team as a whole to learn to play as hard as they possibly can all the time, and to play as smart as they possibly can all the time," he said. "It is said that the strong take from the weak, the fast take from the strong, but the smart take from everyone. It's our intention to be the smartest, hardest-playing team there is." George Mason: Medicine balls and jump ropes. Hubie Brown's Atlanta Hawks shooting drill. Personalized bricks wrapped in white adhesive tape, and the piercing shrills that state-of-the-art basketball shoes make on the refinished hardwood are all standard fare in practices. But the fast-break drill where players are permitted to shoot only from inside the tape that marks a 15-foot radius around the basket is vintage Joe Harrington.

It's the drill that shapes Mason's play -- the run-and-shoot style that enabled the Patriots to score an average of 76.8 points per game, and finish with a 21-7 record overall. "I think almost everything you do, you pick up from someone else," Harrington said. "There aren't any secrets in this game . . . It's a point of emphasis. When they take a shot from outside the tape, I stop the drill."

The gentle swish on a jump shot by Carlos Yates and a sleight-of-hand pass off Ricky Wilson's fingertips. Yates -- an honorable mention all-America in each of his first three years at Mason -- and Wilson, who won the same honor last year, will be leading the Patriots this season.

Howard: The Bison have finished second or better in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the past six seasons, and with a young team this year Coach A. B. Williamson's usual early-practice routine has even added importance this season. The Bison hardly took any shots at the Burr Gym baskets, Williamson choosing to work on conditioning and defense.

Without a senior this season, Williamson is looking to develop role players in an effort to win 20 games. He recruited well this year and recruits Chenault Terry (6-7, 214 pounds) and John Spencer (6-7, 220) may wind up as key performers. Navy: The euphoria of last year's 24-8 record and subsequent stinging postseason snub behind it, the Midshipmen opened practice with promise outweighing the absence of three graduate starters, and with the presence of a 6-11 center.

David Robinson, the tallest player in Navy history, grew two inches and gained 15 pounds (to 215) over the summer. More importantly, he played every day against power forward Vernon Butler, an honorable mention all-America. The difference in confidence, strength and coordination in Robinson was obvious to everyone on the Halsey Field House court.

"It was one on one, big man against big man all summer," said Robinson, who entered the Academy two years ago at 6-8, the maximum allowable under Navy rules. Virginia: The Cavaliers surprised people last year by taking a Ralph Sampson-less team to the Final Four. The players greatly responsible for that 21-12 season, however, have graduated. Only two returning players have much experience (sophomore center Olden Polynice and sophomore forward Tom Sheehan) as nine of the 13 scholarship players are either freshmen or sophomores.

"I think by the end of the season we'll be as good as anyone around," Holland said. "But whether that's good enough, I don't know."