The best season in Howard basketball history had barely ended, but Coach A.B. Williamson already was worried. He was going to lose six players who averaged 20 minutes or more last season and recruiting had not been going that well. He still had two scholarships waiting to be claimed.

Williamson found himself looking everywhere last spring, including in the basement of Burr Gymnasium, which is known for high-quality pickup games featuring athletes from around the city. It was there that Williamson first saw Jeff Holiman.

"You never know who you will see down there," said Williamson, whose team finished 25-5 last season, but for the sixth straight time lost to North Carolina A&T in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament championship game.

"There are a lot of good players there, but the reason most of them are there is that they don't have any grades. But this kid could not only play, he even had his transcript with him in his pocket. I looked at it and couldn't believe he had grades. I asked him if he wanted to become a Bison."

Holiman, Williamson believes, can become a key member on a team starting the new season full of question marks. But even the 6-foot-5 sharp-shooting sophomore has started out on a rough note, fracturing a finger on his nonshooting hand that caused him to miss two weeks of preseason practice.

"He has been our biggest surprise so far," said Williamson of the transfer from Southeastern Community College who did not attend college last year.

Williamson will need some other surprises to emerge if the Bison are to get another chance against A&T in the conference tournament.

"I have no idea what kind of basketball team we will have," said Williamson. "I think we will be a winning team. I just don't know right now how we will win or who we will be doing it with."

Senior shooting guard George Hamilton, who averaged 12.8 points last year, is the leading returning scorer and could become one of the conference's top performers.

"I know I will have to score more," said the former Eleanor Roosevelt High School star. "But I'm looking forward to it. This will be a wild year for us. We have always had speed here, but we never had a need to press like we probably will this year."

John Spencer, a 6-7 senior power forward who averaged 9.3 rebounds and 8.4 points last season, will have to carry the Bison up front. His brother Howard, a 6-7 senior who shot 43 percent from three-point range, must increase his scoring (9.8) and rebounding (3.7).

Guy Owens, a 6-8 junior transfer from Chowan (N.C.) Junior College, had been counted on to help up front, but he has been sidelined for two weeks with a sprained ankle. Senior Rocky Gholson (6.9 points) has played well in the preseason at small forward.

At center, the Bison hope 6-9 sophomore Jack Smith or 6-8 freshman Tyrone Powell will take control.

"Tyrone will become one of the better players we have had here since Larry Spriggs," said Williamson. "But he will have to learn under fire and take my wrath."

There is not as much optimism for the point guard spot, where another transfer, junior Chuck Smalley, is likely to start until redshirt junior Mike Rollins returns after family trouble, which Williamson hopes will be in January.

"In the past, we have seemed to play our best ball in January and February," said Williamson, whose team won 17 straight games last season. "This season, I want to peak in March -- right around tournament time." SCHEDULE

December: 4-5, at UTEP Tournament, tba; 8, Baptist College, 8; 10, Central State, 8; 12, Lincoln, 8; 19, at Campbell, 8; 28, vs. UNC-Charlotte at Florida Southern Tournament, 6; 29, at Florida Southern Tournament, tba.

January: 5, at Baptist College, 7:30; 9, North Carolina A&T, 8; 11, South Carolina State, 8; 14, at Delaware State, 8; 16, at Morgan State, 8; 18, at Wright State, 8; 20, at Central State, 8; 26, Maryland-Eastern Shore, 8; 29, at Bethune-Cookman, 8.

February: 2, at Florida A&M, 8; 6, Florida A&M, 8; 8, Bethune-Cookman, 8; 10, at Coppin State, 8; 13, Delaware State, 8; 16, at Maryland-Eastern Shore, 8; 20, at North Carolina A&T, 8; 22, at South Carolina State, 8; 25, Coppin State, 8; 27, Morgan State, 8.

March: 3-5, at MEAC Tournament, tba.