Even though George Mason finished a distant third behind Navy and Richmond in the Colonial Athletic Association's regular season, the Patriots figure to be more than a marginal threat in the CAA tournament, which begins tonight. The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

George Mason, which is 17-10 overall, 10-4 in the CAA and 6-0 all-time against American, is heavily favored to continue that streak over the Eagles (10-17, 3-11) when the teams meet in a first-round game tonight at 8 at Patriot Center. Navy (24-4, 13-1), the top-seeded team, will play last-place James Madison (5-22, 3-11) at 7:30 in Annapolis.

There also is some regular-season business remaining. Georgetown (22-6 overall, 10-5 in the Big East) will play fading Pittsburgh (15-11, 6-9) at Capital Centre at noon. Georgetown lost its first Big East game of the season at Pitt. It would be a shock if the Panthers, who have been the league's biggest disappointment in the second half of the season, have enough left to pull off another upset.

A victory for 15th-ranked Georgetown would mean double trouble for Pitt, which would have to face the Hoyas again on Thursday in the first round of the Big East tournament.

In its final regular-season game, Howard (18-8, 11-3 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) should easily beat Morgan State (6-19, 6-6) in a game that begins at 8 p.m. at Burr Gymnasium. Even so, the Bison cannot win the conference regular-season title unless North Carolina A&T, which has won 12 straight, loses tonight at home to South Carolina State.

But the tension for Howard and Georgetown won't begin until next week, when their league tournaments commence. George Mason, however, has to win its next three games. It's difficult for the Patriots to think "one game at a time," considering what is at stake for the team and Coach Joe Harrington.

"If we get a win against American, we're probably going to get Richmond, and assuming we could win that game, we'd get Navy," George Mason senior guard Ricky Wilson said. "That's a lot to hang on anybody's shoulders. But our team really wants to go to the NCAA tournament. This is my last year. I'm pushing everybody to win three games."

George Mason has won eight of its last nine -- its strongest finish as a Division I team. But before the Patriots turn their attention to Richmond (which should beat William and Mary tonight in another first-round game) and Navy, they first have to stop American and 6-foot-2 guard Frank Ross, the CAA's leading scorer.

"I know Frank is an exceptional player," Wilson said, "but if he was a center, 6-8 or 6-9, averaging eight or nine rebounds a game, I'd be more concerned.