American University's basketball coach, Ed Tapscott, hardly looked like a man under pressure while throwing a football around the gymnasium after a preseason workout. But when a school wins 20 games three straight years, then goes 6-22, there's pressure.

He and his boss, Bob Frailey, are thinking positive. AU is in a new conference, has several good recruits and expects a new field house by 1986.

"Eddie walked into the worst situation any coach could have and paid the price," said Frailey, the athletic director who picked Tapscott in 1982 to succeed Gary Williams. Tapscott was Williams' assistant for four years and in two of those years, the Eagles went to the NIT.

"We've erased the bad memories of the 1983-84 season and said, 'Let's move on to next year,' " Frailey said. "This season will play a major role in our direction to rebuilding our program. We're optimistic . . ."

The Eagles have started slowly, winning three of eight. They have lost to Georgetown, George Washington and Navy, but played well in the Illini Classic, losing in the first round by six points, then winning the consolation.

Now Tapscott sees the program as his own.

"The program has the Tap stamp on it," he said, "and has to begin to show itself. This year we've got to make some strides and the players have to show promise. My maturation is a continuing process and I must establish a coaching identity. Things I'm doing now are still far more comfortable. I've had the good and the bad year. This is my jury year."

Frailey and Tapscott have a yearly verbal contract that calls for postseason evaluation.

"We usually sit down and evaluate the season and project from there," Frailey said. "There's no pressure on him from this office or the adminstration. The only pressure is self-induced as it should be if you are a good coach. And a good coach will react to it."

When Williams moved on to Boston College, Tapscott took over a senior team that was coming off 24-6 and 21-9 seasons and an 11-point NIT first-round loss to eventual champion Bradley. During his first season, AU defeated then-No. 3 Georgetown, finished 20-10, then lost the ECC title game by two points, costing the team an NCAA berth.

"The Georgetown win didn't affect me as much but it helped the school in many ways," Tapscott said. "Sometimes a major upset like that tends to make one think in terms of unrealistic expectations. But I didn't lose track of the fact you can be a hero one day and a bum the next. I was invited to speak at eight banquets following that (winning) season. Last year, I went to one. Without that one invitation, I might have gone hungry all year."

Last season, he found himself with inexperienced players and lost more games than any AU coach ever had.

"Some people have dismissed last year because we lost everyone from that senior-filled team of two years ago," said Tapscott, who graduated from Tufts and has a law degree from AU's Washington College of Law. "Now they're saying, 'Let's see what the guy can do.' "

Recruiting has brought speed and talent, but not the height necessary for the ECAC South, in which AU plays this season.

"It was a good move to change conferences," Tapscott said. "AU should be identified with schools around the Washington area. We have that now with the schools in this conference. Now we're affiliated with universities who share the same philosophy of where athletics belong in college."

If AU is to adapt to its new conference, it will have to use quickness and finesse to beat Richmond, Navy and George Mason, all 20-game winners, and perennial winners James Madison and William and Mary.

"I think we'll do well," Tapscott said. "We have no size but we're quicker than a year ago and we want to utilize that speed. We'll press more and run a controlled fast break. We want to be more aggressive. We'll apply a lot of pressure all game and, hopefully, wear a few people down. We'll have to outwork people to win games.

"We'll be happy if our players go as hard as they can each night. If we approach each game as if we have to have it, we could get 17 or more wins. If we win at least six of the seven of the conference games at home, two or three of our other home games, five or six out of the conference on the road and split in our tournaments, we could get those 17 wins."

It won't be easy. Tapscott's floor leader will likely be a sophomore guard, 6-foot-2 Frank Ross, who played extremely well last year. Also returning are 6-2 Michael Wade, 6-4 Steve Neismith, 6-5 Jimmy Lutz and 6-7 J.D. Springer. Freshmen signees expected to contribute immediately are 5-10 Mike Sampson (Carroll), 6-5 Eric White (Mackin), 6-2 Chuck West (Central) and 6-5 Manual Nadal.

So far, White and Sampson have had immediate impact. White leads the team in rebounding and is scoring in double figures. Sampson leads in assists.

This group has potential, but for the Eagles to regain respect they must find the big man they haven't had since first-team all-America Kermit Washington in 1973.

"AU needs the blue-chipper inside," said former Eagles guard Mark Nickens, a fourth-round draft choice of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1983. "The rest of the pieces will come together."

Tapscott tries to sign a blue-chip player every season but knows AU can't recruit the 6-10 and 6-11 players easily. Sometimes he has to recruit high school players who have yet to reach their potential. An example was W.T. Woodson's 6-9 senior Steve Rye, who Tapscott feels can play well in college.

Last summer, Tapscott and his staff spent a lot of time recruiting a 6-9 inside player in the Dominican Republic. In the end, the player chose LSU, so Tapscott settled for that player's high school teammate, Nadal. AU also spent a great deal of time and effort trying to sign DeMatha all-America Carlton Valentine, who chose Michigan State.

"We spent so much time recruiting Valentine we eventually lost out on several other players," Tapscott said. "The one thing we can promise a recruit that the Georgetowns and Marylands can't is a lot of immediate playing time.

"Because of our facility (Fort Myer), a seed of doubt is already planted in the kids' minds. We also don't recruit kids who are not able to predict success in a college environment. I won't bring in kids who won't be able to do the college academic work. I have to be fair to them. I don't want them coming here and struggling for four years."

According to Nickens, one plus for AU is that "the school has become well-known through its success in basketball. Because of its small size, there's a close contact with the administration and coaches."

"I think we've done as much with our program in 20 years with what we've had to work with as anyone could have," Frailey said. "Basketball is our so-called lead sport and because of our success, people have become aware of AU. Recently, our soccer team has made moves, but it's basketball that has opened the eyes and told people we were here and not in Beirut.

"We're coming up on our 100th year and basketball will fit in with our celebration, particularly when the new field house opens."

Frailey and Tapscott believe the field house will have a huge impact on the athletic program and the university community.

"Right now, I'm using the field house as a part of my recruiting sell," Tapscott said. "But it only helps if a kid is seriously considering AU anyway.

Said Frailey, "The new conference, the new building, all of this was the right move for us."

Next: Howard