The Colonial Athletic Association has to be one of the least recognized and most underrated college basketball conferences in the nation. The semifinal round of the league tournament, to be played tonight at Patriot Center, will feature three teams that could qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Top-seeded Navy (25-4), coming off a sluggish victory in the first round over James Madison, can tie last year's school record for victories by beating North Carolina-Wilmington in the first semifinal, which begins at 7. And host George Mason (18-10), the No. 3 seed, has to feel confident going into the 9 p.m. game against Richmond (23-5), which lost at home to Mason two weeks ago.

Maryland, savoring Saturday's victory over Virginia, learned it will play North Carolina Friday at 9 p.m. in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C. And Georgetown began preparation for its third meeting of the year with Pittsburgh, Thursday at 3 p.m. in New York's Madison Square Garden in the first round of the Big East tournament.

The winners of the CAA, ACC and Big East tournaments all receive automatic bids to the 64-team NCAA championship tournament, which begins March 13.

Even if Navy loses tonight against UNC-Wilmington or in the final, the Midshipmen almost certainly will receive an at-large bid.

Richmond is in a more precarious situation. But the CAA (previously the ECAC South) has an NCAA tournament record of 6-5 the last five years -- Richmond won two of those games -- which could help the Spiders earn an at-large berth.

Mason, which has won nine of its last 10 games, including a first-round victory over American on Saturday, is hoping that playing at home will help against Richmond (which will be without its second-best player, injured forward John Davis) and in a possible final Tuesday night against Navy.

George Mason Coach Joe Harrington said yesterday one thing is certain: "that John Newman won't go three for 15." That's what Newman shot from the field when George Mason upset the Spiders in Richmond. It's a good bet that Newman, a 22-points-per-game scorer, will have a much better game.

Even if he does, the Patriots could be tough to beat with freshman forward Kenny Sanders (22 points and 19 rebounds against AU) and senior Rob Rose forming a solid one-two punch.

Navy is going to have to play a lot better than it did against JMU to beat UNC-Wilmington. The Seahawks lost twice to Navy during the regular season but have the league's second-best center (after Navy's David Robinson) in 6-9 junior Brian Rowsom, who averages 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Rowsom has had varying degrees of success against the Midshipmen, once making only three of 23 shots and having nine of them blocked by Robinson, the other time scoring 25 points and getting 10 rebounds.

Even though Navy apparently will make the NCAA tournament, win or lose, Coach Paul Evans discounted the notion that the Midshipmen won't have much incentive. "By no means are we at a level, like a Duke or Georgia Tech, where we can lose a game going into the tournament and play as well," he said.

Maryland, Coach Lefty Driesell said yesterday, is playing about as well as he could hope for. "We're on sort of a roll right now," he said. "Our defense has been pretty good, we've been taking good shots and we've been hitting our free throws better than anyone in the conference."

There should be no doubt that Maryland (17-12) will be included in the NCAA tournament when the bids are announced Sunday. Maryland, according to one computer survey, played the third-toughest schedule in the nation this season. Now that the Terrapins are playing so well, Driesell is thinking about winning the ACC tournament.

Georgetown (22-6) certainly is a primary threat to win the Big East, even though the Hoyas lost five league games in the regular season.

"I like this team," Georgetown Coach John Thompson said. "They're a good group of kids to work with. I think they're trying as hard as they can try. How good we are, I don't know."

Driesell said he was interested in getting permission from Thompson to talk to Grady Mateen, the 6-10 sophomore center/forward who quit Georgetown on Thursday.

"We recruited him in high school, but he never visited Maryland," Driesell said. "He's a very bright young man, I know that, and an extremely nice kid."

Mateen, who cited lack of playing time as the reason for his departure, was sixth on the team in playing time. Early in the season, he was often first off the bench, playing 15 to 20 minutes per game. But as it grew obvious that the Hoyas need power inside -- not Mateen's biggest asset -- his minutes dropped. He played a total of 11 minutes in his last three Big East games.

Steve Frick of George Washington yesterday was named a first-team member of the GTE academic all-America team. A premed major, he has a 3.4 grade point average.