Just because Earl Jones -- who led NCAA Division II in scoring last year and led the University of the District of Columbia to the 1981-82 championship and to the final in 1982-83 -- is gone to the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, don't offer condolences to UDC Coach Wil Jones.

"Earl has been greatly missed," Wil Jones said. "There's no doubt about it. But I'm not crying. I like this team I have now."

Like it or not, clearly the Firebirds no longer are the force they were. Jones had hoped to gain at least a split in the Florida Southern tournament last weekend, but UDC lost twice, its record falling to 6-7.

Jones did expect his team to be above .500 at this point, but he realizes that his roster includes nine freshmen, three sophomores and one senior, Neal Robertson, who leads the team in scoring at 21.8 points a game.

"When I lost Earl and a couple of other important players, I knew I had to hit the recruiting trail harder than ever and get six or seven new kids . . . and I got some good players," Jones said. "It's going to take some time for us to really play well as a team, but these young ones have come along."

At the start of the season, UDC was at a disadvantage because Wil Jones was hospitalized with torn knee cartilage and missed the first 10 days of practice.

"It's like John (Thompson, Georgetown's coach) or Lefty (Driesell, Maryland's coach) being without their team for 10 days," Jones said. "It hurt the team. My assistant, Cheryl Roberts, put in the basic drills and did a real good job, but it's not the same. With a young team, you need to establish a few basic things right from the start of the season, and I wasn't able to do that."

UDC's inexperience showed immediately. In the final of the UDC Tip-Off Classic, the Firebirds blew a 14-point lead and lost to Elizabeth City State, 97-92.

Facing teams he beat decisively the past four seasons, Jones said, "They're grinning and licking their lips. I can take it because I've been successful. I like to put us up against a tough schedule and see how we do. It's better for the program in the long run."

And the long run looks pretty good to Jones. The recognition that Earl Jones and Michael Britt brought to the UDC program as players has helped Wil Jones immeasurably in laying a strong foundation for the next few years.

Area players who are not high on the recruiting list of Division I schools are finding UDC an alternative, Jones said. The Firebirds start four first-year players who are from the area.

"It's a close group, a happy group," Jones said. "Not that we don't have our problems. With this team, you tell them to get to a spot on the floor and they run to it, but they don't know why. They're just beginning to learn the game.

"But I'm very happy with where the program stands right now. It's never easy to recruit for a Division II coach. We have to wait and see who doesn't get picked up, and you want to take kids that fit into your system. It's a shame, too, because there's not that much of a separation of talent (between divisions I and II) and it's only a small percentage that makes it to the pros, anyway."

For immediate success, UDC could use a bona fide center. Charles Cook, a 6-foot-10 freshman from Mackin, starts, but lacks consistency. In a 93-81 loss to Wright State, he scored 22 points, but he followed that with a two-point effort in a 73-70 loss to Northeast Missouri State.

"I will get a big man for next season," Jones said.

"Just because I'm in Division II doesn't mean I like to lose. You hate to lose at any level. We might be a little down this year, but we'll be okay. I know I can put together a basketball team with a little support," Jones said.

"Earl and Michael Britt were great luxuries and I'd love to have still have them here. But who wouldn't?"