After Navy's performance in last spring's NCAA basketball tournament -- a first-round annihilation of Louisiana State followed by a five-point loss to Maryland -- it was apparent to many that, with all five starters back this season, the Midshipmen had the potential to be a formidable team.

It was apparent to the new Big Apple NIT, which selected Navy as one of 16 teams that will play in the inaugural preseason tournament that begins Thursday.

It was apparent to pollsters around the country, most of whom have ranked Navy in their preseason top 20.

It was apparent to Maryland Coach Charles G. Driesell, who conveniently couldn't find a date on his schedule for the Midshipmen.

It was apparent to everyone -- except the TV networks.

What could be a better story than Navy?

At a time when it seems some new scandal erupts in college sports every day, here is a team -- a very good team -- made up of players who have to attend class regularly and who will graduate. A team with a star player, 7-foot David Robinson, who could have transferred last spring to avoid his five-year postgraduate commitment to the Navy but opted to stay.

Ideal, right? Wrong.

NBC, according to spokesman Tom Merritt, "never really considered" Navy for one of its telecasts. "It just never really came up," Merritt said.

CBS did a little bit better. "They were our next choice if Memphis State-Nevada-Las Vegas fell through," said Billy Packer, who plays a major role in putting the CBS schedule together. "We gave those two schools a deadline to work things out and they came within 30 minutes of not meeting it. If they hadn't, we would have gone to Navy."

Give CBS credit for at least thinking about Navy. But Memphis State-Nevada-Las Vegas? What is the big deal there? Neither team is that good. In fact, Navy might be better than both before the season is over. What's more, given a choice between two schools with documented low graduation rates, a recent probation history (UNLV) and a current NCAA/FBI investigation (Memphis State), why not go with something different for a change?

"We even called ESPN (the cable network that brings you PKA karate)," said Navy Coach Paul Evans. "They weren't interested, either. It's a little frustrating."

The basketball season formally begins Thursday in Houston with two first-round games in the new NIT: Alabama-Birmingham plays Texas A&M, and Duke plays Lamar.

The other six first-round games are Friday, including Navy-St. John's in Hartford, Conn.

It is a shame that this new venture, which has so much potential, begins with the same shadiness that has enveloped the postseason NIT.

It should be recalled that NIT officials, desperate for attention for their tournament last March, all but fixed the pairings to ensure that Indiana, UCLA and Louisville reached the semifinals in New York. They gave those teams all their preliminary games at home, even though many other teams in the tournament had better records.

Now, with a brand new product, the NIT once again has refused to bracket the 16 teams. After this weekend's first two rounds, the tournament will announce the pairings for next weekend's semifinals in New York.

Why? The better to get matchups the tournament wants. How silly. Either the tournament can survive on its own merits or it can't.

A few notes on the early signing period that began last Wednesday and ends this Wednesday: The player considered the best prospect in the country, 6-9 J.R. Reed of Virginia Beach, will not sign early. Right now, reports are that Maryland might have a slight lead over North Carolina and Virginia in the Reed sweepstakes.

North Carolina was considered the leader early, but during the summer, Driesell hired Oliver Purnell, who had been an assistant at Old Dominion. ODU is close to Virginia Beach and Purnell is friendly with Reed. What's more, sources say Driesell had a better home visit with Reed than Dean Smith did.

But it is very early.

Georgetown already has a commitment from a big man, 6-10 Sam Jefferson of Flint Hill, and a commitment from a good guard, 6-3 Dwayne Bryant. The signing of Bryant would indicate that Georgetown does not expect to get or is not interested in 6-2 Rumeal Robinson. Robinson, from Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge and Latin (Patrick Ewing's high school) is considered the best guard in the country. He might end up at Boston College.

Other ACC schools have had some impressive signings: North Carolina got 6-10 Scott Williams from Los Angeles; Duke got 6-10 Allah Abdel-Naby from New Jersey (a transfer from Egypt) and 6-4 Steve Henderson from Illinois; Georgia Tech got 6-3 Michael Christian from Colorado; and N.C. State got 6-7 Andy Kenney (a guard) from Mississippi.

The upset pick finished with a flourish last season, winning seven of the last nine for an 8-9 record. But chickening out on picking Villanova over Georgetown in the title game made for a long summer.

No matter. It is a new year, and there will be new upsets. The first one is easy: Navy, which is underrated, will beat St. John's, which is overrated, in the opening round of the NIT on Friday.