It was in the summer of 1980 that they first met, thrown together as rising high school seniors at the Five-Star basketball camp. Ed Pinckney, from the Bronx, was slender and quiet and at 6 feet 9 had already been tabbed for college stardom. Dwayne McClain, the New Englander, was almost as quiet and almost as good, a 6-6 swing man with an unorthodox but deadly jump shot. And finally, there was Gary McLain, a 6-0 hyperactive kid from Long Island with a big mouth and big dreams.

They became friends during that camp, and that winter McClain and McLain, having already decided to go to Villanova, persuaded Pinckney to visit the Main Line campus. Pinckney liked what he saw, and the three were linked again.

The man who recruited them, Rollie Massimino, has told them again and again through their four years at Villanova they were the class he would never forget, partly because they have won 88 games since they arrived but more so "because they've taken 10 years off my life since they got here."

That was before last Sunday, before the three seniors and their Villanova teammates stunned second-ranked Michigan, 59-55, in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Suddenly, the Wildcats were in the final 16 and the top seed in the regional was behind them rather than ahead of them.

As Villanova's bus rumbled back to campus Sunday night, Gary McLain sat thinking about his coach's words. Suddenly, he stood up and grabbed Massimino. "Coach Mass," he said, "you always said you'd never forget us. But now you may remember us for something you didn't expect. We're going to be the team that gets you to the Final Four."

Rollie Massimino and his three seniors have been close. In 1982, when the three were freshmen, they reached the East Regional final only to meet North Carolina, ranked No. 1 and the eventual national champion. In 1983, they reached the Midwest Regional final. The opponent was No. 1-ranked Houston.

Both times, the Wildcats were outmanned. Now, as they prepare to play Maryland on Friday in the Southeast Regional semifinals in Birmingham, there is no superteam in their path. Maryland (25-11) beat Villanova (21-10) in January in Cole Field House at College Park, 77-74; the Terrapins are good, but not overwhelming. North Carolina (26-8) and Auburn (22-11) constitute the other bracket; the Tar Heels and Tigers are also good, but neither is great.

"It's in our reach now," McClain said Tuesday night before the Wildcats practiced. "We know the other teams in this region are good. But there aren't any bomb squads out there like North Carolina or Houston were. Every minute we're out there, Eddie, Gary and I remind each other, 'This is it, this is it.' We know we have to play every minute, every second hard.

"We've all been through a lot together. We want to leave our mark. This is our chance."

In a city that prides itself on basketball tradition, this is the one Big Five school outside the city limits. The compact campus is a mixture of old, like the creaky field house, and new, like the 5-year-old union building and the spanking field house that is slowly rising behind the current one.

Good basketball is as much a part of the tradition here as the Augustinian priests who run the school. But when Massimino, then 38, a chunky little mass of energy and spitfire, became the coach in 1973, Villanova basketball was reeling. The 1971 team, coached by Jack Kraft and dominated by Howard Porter, had reached the NCAA championship game only to be stripped of all its honors because Porter had signed with an agent during the season.

Kraft's last team before he departed for Rhode Island had gone 11-14. Massimino's first two teams won a total of 16 games. But he rebuilt and by 1978, Villanova was all the way back, winning 23 games and reaching the East Regional final (losing to Duke).

"That was like a wedding for me," Massimino remembered. "Everything was brand new. New tie, new suit, new hat. Just being there was exciting."

Two more trips that far and two more losses have left Massimino with an appetite for that next step. The same is true of his players.

"Now," said junior forward Harold Pressley, "this is our time."

More than anything, this is the time for Pinckney. He is one of those players burdened by his potential. As a freshman, he averaged 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds a game. He made it look easy and therefore much more was expected in the future. When he scored 27 points and got 22 rebounds as a sophomore against Georgetown, they began planning the statue. But, until recently, Pinckney went no further.

There were flashes: 29 points and 16 rebounds against Maryland; an adjustment to playing in the low post after struggling somewhat with being the inside player as a junior. But when this tournament began, Massimino, who has pushed and cajoled Pinckney almost since the day he got here, decided it was time for one more talk.

"When Eddie first got here he always said he didn't want to be a pro," Massimino said. "That was his out, it took the monkey off his back. He was always Easy Ed. I've always tried to talk to him about the future, about what he wants. Does he want to drive a Volkswagen or a Mercedes? Does he want to struggle or does he want real comfort?

"If you want that kind of thing, you have to extend yourself, you can't hold back. You can't say, 'Later, it will come later.' There is no later now."

Pinckney listened and responded. He reminded his coach that his most consistent basketball had been in NCAA play.

"When I was a freshman I didn't think of myself as a pro," he said. "Now, I know what I can do and I've changed as a player because I've had to. When I first got here, John Pinone was the main guy. I can't be John Pinone, I'm not like him. But I know I have to be a leader on this team every minute we're out there."

Pinckney was that last weekend. McLain is the talker, McClain is the shooter. Pinckney is the man. Pinckney got the key rebounds in the final minutes of the 51-49 victory over Dayton. Pinckney held Big Ten MVP Roy Tarpley to two points in the second half of the Michigan game.

"He was fabulous," Massimino said. "He did everything you could ask of him. Eddie's one of those guys who reminds me of what my mother used to say: 'If you have a reputation for getting up early, you can sleep till 12:30 and get away with it.' Eddie has the 'easy' reputation. People expect him to disappear during games. He isn't doing that now."

Villanova is not a team that can afford to have anyone disappear among its starting five. Pressley shot one for eight in the first Maryland game, and McLain was outplayed at the point by Keith Gatlin.

"We know we're better than we showed that day," said McLain.