For George Washington, tonight's 7:30 game versus American at Fort Myer will provide the latest bit of evidence toward answering the question of the Colonials' basketball legitimacy.

They raised eyebrows when they upset Michigan State in East Lansing, and they gained a foothold on local supremacy when they beat George Mason at home last week.

For American, the game is a chance to improve its inside play and keep momentum going after a come-from-behind win Saturday over Dartmouth.

George Washington's 5-1 record is its best start since the 1972-73 season. American is 2-3. And each team is wary of the other.

"I just don't think we look very aggressive offensively," American Coach Ed Tapscott said. "In this game, you've got to be able to score."

"We have got to be the underdog," Colonials assistant coach Rodney Johnson said. "They've beaten us two years in a row. We're going into their place."

AU's main problem will be dealing with the Colonials' inside game. Junior center Max Blank averages 11.8 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. Sophomore forward Mike Jones averages 6 1/2 rebounds a game, and freshman Glen Sitney 4 1/2.

"They're very athletic," Tapscott said of Jones and Sitney. "We're going to have to play our best to make a game out of it."

Tapscott is aware of the Colonials' aggressiveness and overplaying defense. "If you get denied on the perimeter, you've got to be willing to cut backdoor and be strong with the ball inside," he said.

George Washington also is getting strong play from its backcourt. Guard Ellis McKennie leads the team at 13.7 points a game. Gerald Jackson adds 11 points and four assists.

AU also has strong guards. Dale Spears is averaging 13.6 points, shooting 40 percent from three-point range. Mike Sampson, averaging 18 points and four assists a game, played all of Saturday's game and scored 21. With AU's big men unable to work free inside, Sampson went in for two layups in the last minute, including the game-winning points.

"I thought he really led us to a win," Tapscott said of Sampson. ". . . He's playing with heart, with intensity, and it's time for some of these other guys to do the same."

Part of the Eagles' problems inside stem from injuries. Senior forward Andy Bon Salle (9.5 points, 5.3 rebounds) has been out with a sprained ankle. He is probable tonight, but AU will be without centers Ron Davenport (ankle stress fracture) and Marc Levy (back problems) indefinitely.

Senior forward Beth Shearer became American's all-time women's leading scorer Saturday when she had 23 points in a loss to Virginia Commonwealth. Her career total of 1,198 points broke the record of 1,196 set by Darsi Smith Wilson in 1984. This season, Shearer is averaging 24.2 points and 8.4 rebounds a game.