Frank Ross, American University's fine guard, was a freshman, and the Eagles were playing a Georgetown basketball team that would go on to win the national championship.

Gene Smith, the Hoyas' standout defender, was guarding Ross. "I told him it would be the longest night of his career because he was playing against Gene Smith," AU Coach Ed Tapscott recalled.

"Frank runs by the bench and says, 'Coach, watch me juice (burn one-on-one) this guy.' I turned to my assistant and said, 'We've got ourselves a ballplayer. This kid may be crazy, but he has spunk.' "

Tonight at 8 in a matchup of unbeaten local teams at the Capital Centre (WTTG-TV-5), Tapscott will be hoping his Eagles have both spunk and poise. "It's tough to go to the Capital Centre and play with poise," he said. "It's big-game atmosphere on a big floor. This isn't my Armageddon. This is a good game to test yourself against one of the best teams in the country."

AU, coming back strong after two less-than-mediocre seasons, is 5-0, and Ross, who is 6 feet 2, is a key to the Eagles' success. He leads the team in scoring, assists and steals, is third in rebounding and has the best field goal percentage of all the starters on a team that is shooting 54 percent. Tapscott says his strength is his versatility.

But Ross, who played at Potomac High School in Oxon Hill, is even better at keeping his teammates loose. He invents nicknames. Center Henry Hopkins is known as Mangler. "Freshman year, the guy would have a tendency, instead of trying to draw the foul, to chop them -- mangle them," Ross said.

Ross keeps the team loose in other ways, too. This fall, for example, Manuel Nadal, a redshirt freshman from the Dominican Republic, was being hounded by reporters because his friend Tito Horford, one of the most highly recruited high school players last season, had left LSU and was in the Washington area. When a reporter left the AU locker room, Ross asked Nadal if the reporter had given him $10 for the interview.

At a team meeting the next day, Tapscott asked Nadal if he had any problems with reporters. Nadal replied that he had not, except that a reporter had failed to pay him. Tapscott, of course, had to explain to Nadal that he had been had by Ross.

"That's just camaraderie," Ross said. "That comes from being in the gym with the same guys from October to March. That's the key to making it through the season -- joking and understanding each other."

Making it through tonight's game may prove a sizable problem for American if the Eagles are unable to withstand Georgetown's constant pressure defense. Georgetown won last year, 86-64.

"It's a big game, a local rivalry," Ross said. "But win or lose, it's not going to destroy our season."

An upset tonight would rank larger than three years ago when a good, veteran AU team beat a Georgetown squad that was ranked No. 2 nationally at the time. This Eagles team is quite young.

"We're 5-0 and I don't know how good we are yet," Tapscott said. "The Hoyas will be a good benchmark for us."