There already is at least one sign on campus imploring the Naval Academy to "Beat Army" in the school's final football game of the season, which is more than two weeks away.

But there is a matter of more immediate attention for Navy. Tonight at 7, in a first-round Big Apple National Invitation Tournament game, 19th-ranked Navy will play St. John's in the Hartford Civic Center. It is one of Navy's most important regular-season basketball games ever.

On Sunday night, the winner of St. John's-Navy will play the winner of another first-round game between Auburn, a top 10 team, and West Virginia. The 16-team tournament, which started last night at Houston, one of the four regional sites, concludes at Madison Square Garden Nov. 29 and Dec. 1.

A victory over St. John's, which made the Final Four last season, would help Navy's credibility on the national level. "We've been drilling into our kids' heads all week the importance of this game," Coach Paul Evans said. "We told them, they're up higher than they've ever been (in the rankings) and they've got a good chance to stay there if they win a couple."

Winning the first one could prove difficult enough, even though Navy returns all five starters, including 6-foot-11 all-America candidate David Robinson, and 6-7 power forward Vernon Butler.

It's fashionable in college basketball circles to talk about how down St. John's will be because the Redmen will be playing for the first time without four-year starter Chris Mullin and 7-foot center Bill Wennington, both in the NBA. But the Redmen still have 6-8 Walter Berry, a first-team selection in the Big East last year, plus 6-5 junior Willie Glass to go along with 6-11 freshman center Marco Baldi.

St. John's strength could be in point guard Mark Jackson, who played strongly down the stretch last season when the Redmen lost to Georgetown in the NCAA semifinals.

Evans said he feels a lot better playing St. John's with his team having beaten Louisiana State last March in the NCAA tournament before losing a close game to Maryland.

There are still a lot of people who find it difficult to believe Navy (26-6 last season) could be a top 20 team. But with Robinson, Butler, point guard Doug Wojcik and swingman Kylor Whitaker now being backed up by a pretty good bench, the Midshipmen intend to show last year was no fluke.