After three losses in Howard's last four games, Coach A.B. Williamson is faced with rekindling the confidence his young team appears to have misplaced.

"If we were scheduled to play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament two days after we lost to Morgan State 69-68 last Saturday , it could have been dangerous," said Williamson, whose team finished second in the MEAC with an 11-3 record after having been 10-0. "It would have been tight for us in the tournament. The kids were down, but I can see signs of them coming around. It's a mental thing.

"My assistant Cy Alexander and I have talked to the kids and tried to get them to approach the tournament on a happy medium. We want them to be loose but mentally into the games."

Second-seeded Howard (18-9) received a first-round bye and will face Delaware State or Maryland-Eastern Shore at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Philadelphia Civic Center. The 15th annual tournament begins Friday. The extra day of waiting gives Williamson more time to reflect on that dreadful weekend when Howard lost to North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State, ceding top seeding to A&T (12-2).

"We said before the year began that weekend would be the most important part of our schedule," he said. "A&T was waiting for us and played extremely well, and I think our kids were shocked they beat us so badly (75-62). Our confidence just sagged."

Two nights later, South Carolina State spilled Howard, 62-57. The Bison bounced back against Maryland-Eastern Shore, 96-71, but then came Morgan State.

Before that trip, the Bison, pursuing their first NCAA tournament berth since 1981, had won 16 games in a stretch of 17. One was a convincing 67-59 decision over A&T, seemingly a perfect tonic for Howard, which has lost the the MEAC tournament championship game and accompanying NCAA berth to the Aggies the last four years.

But Williamson and Howard can't afford to think ahead to a ninth Bison-Aggies MEAC final. "In a tournament, you must play well regardless of who your opponent is," he said. "Maybe the losses will shake us up. We have to get quality play from several individuals, and they know it."

Six first-round games, two men's and four women's, are scheduled Friday. Howard's women (16-10, 11-3 in the MEAC) begin defense of their tournament title at noon against Maryland-Eastern Shore (10-15).