It is a December ritual, as certain as department stores crowded with Christmas shoppers. The schedules of many big-time college basketball teams are loaded with the easiest victories money can buy. Give a big guarantee and get a guaranteed victory.

"I don't know what our guarantee is," said Coach Kevin Mackey, whose Cleveland State team plays Maryland at 8 tonight in Cole Field House. "But I'm sure it'll be a good guarantee. They always pay well for Ws," as in wins.

A good guarantee, such as the $15,000 George Mason got for playing Iowa Saturday, usually means the fee will cover all expenses and leave a little profit. Morgan State opened with road games at New Mexico, Wisconsin, South Alabama, San Diego State and George Washington, and Coach Tom Dean said, "We brought back a little more than it cost us to go out there. But I wouldn't do it just for the money."

For Cleveland State and St. Leo, a 1,200-student Division II school in Florida that plays an 8 o'clock game against top-ranked Georgetown at Capital Centre tonight, the reasons for accepting such a mismatch are different, and certainly more than a matter of a money.

The Maryland game was scheduled before Mackey, a former assistant at Boston College, took charge of the Division I school's struggling program two years ago. Mackey said, "I'd just as soon be playing St. Leo as far as the wins and losses are concerned."

The Maryland game was arranged by Irv Raffel, a Cleveland-area dentist who is a Maryland alumnus and a booster of both schools. He paid for the black uniforms that Maryland wears in some of its big games.

"I'd like to schedule this game, but play it in a year or two," said Mackey, whose team is 3-0. "We're trying to build a solid Division I program here. But I don't think we're ready to play at this level this early. But we've pointed to it and all that, and the kids are looking forward to it. It's great to be young and enthusiastic."

If anybody is worried, it is Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, whose 3-1 team is expecting its first breather. Cleveland State has beaten Penn State by 30 points, two lesser opponents by a total of 85 and is averaging almost 102 points per game. The top players are forwards Clinton Smith and Clinton Ransey and 6-9 freshman Gene Miles, who was heavily recruited.

"They're good athletes," Driesell said. "They have good size, they run, they press you and we gotta be ready. I don't know how they (his players) might think it's a breather. Names don't mean anything. It's not a breather by any stretch of the imagination."

Georgetown-St. Leo is a breather, by any stretch of the imagination. Georgetown, the defending Division I champion, has yet to play an opponent in its division this season. St. Leo played Iona last night, and both games were considered the most important on the St. Leo schedule by Coach Gary Richert. He said he uses the two games for recruiting and public relations.

"Georgetown's almost become a traditional game for us," said Richert about a series in which his team has lost the most recent games by 32, 45, 35 and 39 points. "We have big alumni gatherings at Iona and Georgetown. We're playing Iona, because most of our kids come from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. There's a large contingent of alumni in the Washington area.

"We're a very good Division II team, and it helps us from a recruiting standpoint. It helps us when we tell them (recruits) we're going to make a trip to Washington and a trip to New York. It gives us an opportunity to get a young man who might otherwise go to a low Division I school."

Richert said St. Leo's guarantee from Georgetown would cover expenses. He declined to give the specific amount, as did Georgetown Athletic Director Frank Rienzo. Rienzo said, "I don't think money's as much a prime factor as that they want to come up here annually."

St. Leo recently beat Georgia State, 70-64, the Monarchs' first victory over a Division I team since the 1973-74 season. The Monarchs are small, quick and like to press and run. Georgetown is big, quick and likes to press and run.

"We're just going to play our regular game," Richert said. "(Patrick) Ewing is going to dominate the game, anyway. We'll get in a full-court game, which they'll like. But if we got in a half-court game, they'd pound it into Ewing and hurt us right away."

In other games tonight involving area teams, Navy (3-0) should have little trouble at Penn State in an 8:10 game, and Virginia (4-1) will play at William and Mary at 7:30.