Joe Mullaney, who has won 686 basketball games as a college and pro coach, walked into the office of his boss at Providence College two weeks ago and quit.

"If I had to make the decision of not being the coach," Mullaney told Athletic Director Lou Lamoriello that day, "I'd say, 'As much as I like Joe and everything, something has to happen. We have to make a change . . . . Something has to be different; we have to put some new life into it, and get some enthusiasm back.' "

Providence basketball is the game in Rhode Island, and fans have been harsh on Mullaney this season, hankering again for the glory days when he coached such players as John Thompson, Len Wilkens, Johnny Egan and Jimmy Hadnot, and Providence was the premier team of Eastern basketball. Under three coaches, Providence basketball has been down for almost a decade, having won only 16 league games in the six seasons of the Big East.

"Joe Mullaney has forgotten more about Xs and Os than any of the fans will ever know," said Greg Karambelas, whose deli across the square from the Providence Civic Center is a sports hangout. "But," he added, voicing the concerns of Providence fans, "we've come so close so many times to signing name players and not getting them."

The Civic Center will be sold out tonight when the Friars (9-16, 2-10 in the Big East) play host to second-ranked Georgetown (22-2, 9-2) at 8 o'clock. There will be no pregame introduction of coaches, those having been eliminated in the wake of early-season booing of Mullaney's name.

It is generally accepted that there are only three players on the squad who were heavily recruited by other Big East schools: freshmen Steve Wright, a 6-foot-10 center, guard Matt Palazzi and senior center Ray Knight, a transfer from Georgetown. "You can name any coach in the country," Mullaney said, "and if he has the same material (as Providence's), he'll have the same results."

Mullaney, 59, will remain as an associate athletic director. A week after the public announcement, he has no regrets. "Whoever the new coach is will buy some time," he said. "It's the best thing for the school and the best thing for the program. I'm pleased that I made the decision now. I think it's the right one. I've had a pretty nice run. I've met a lot of nice people and I've had a lot of nice players."

In many ways, Providence was the prototype for the Big East Conference. It was the first Eastern school to play its entire schedule in a public arena, and the first to have its own television network. Now, Providence is a small fish in the Big East pond.

A significant game on today's schedule has Virginia playing host to Georgia Tech, the first-place team in the Atlantic Coast Conference (WJLA-TV-7, 3:30 p.m.).

Although Virginia is 1-8 in the league, the Cavaliers have so improved that Coach Terry Holland says they could be as good as anyone else in the ACC tournament in three weeks. A great degree of Virginia's improvement has been the result of the play of sophomore Tom Calloway, a Charlottesville native who was not recruited by the Cavaliers.

Calloway has started the last seven games as point guard, giving the Cavaliers the back court strength and quickness they had been missing since the departure of Othell Wilson. Holland has gone out of his way to note Calloway's play, even though his statistics are pedestrian as a starter (6.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists per game).

Holland said he did not recruit Calloway during the athlete's senior year at Charlottesville High School because Wilson and Ricky Stokes, two good little guards, were going into their junior seasons. So Calloway signed at Old Dominion, where he played only 28 minutes as a freshman.

A week before his sophomore year, Calloway notified Old Dominion that he would not return, partly because of illness in his family, according to Holland. Old Dominion Coach Paul Webb initially declined to give Calloway a release to receive a scholarship at another school. Calloway enrolled at Piedmont Community College in Charlottesville, which did not have a basketball team.

But he played in pickup games with Virginia players and, when Webb released Calloway in November 1983, he started the second semester of the 1983-84 school year at Virginia.

In other games involving area teams, Navy tries to retain first place in the ECAC South in a 2 p.m. home game against William and Mary; George Mason plays host to James Madison in an ECAC South game, at 7:30 p.m.; George Washington, loser of three of its last four, plays Massachusetts in a 2 p.m. Atlantic 10 Conference game at Springfield; Howard is at Morgan State in a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game at 8 p.m., and the University of the District of Columbia plays a 7:30 p.m. game at C.W. Post.