With a big crowd expected to file into a fancy new arena, American University shouldn't have a problem getting excited for its game tonight at 7 against James Madison, Eagles Coach Ed Tapscott surmised. The trick will be to channel it in the right direction.

"If you can't get up for the biggest moment in AU athletic history," Tapscott said, "you don't belong on the court.

"But that's probably the easy part. The harder part will be to keep them from being too excited and . . . to make sure they are relaxed enough to play."

The enthusiasm is a response to tonight's first game in the 5,000-seat Bender Arena. The Eagles had played at Fort Myer from the late 1960s through last week. Though tonight's game was not sold out as of yesterday afternoon, the presale will make it one of the biggest gatherings in AU sporting history.

A victory by American would push the Eagles a bit closer to the top of the Colonial Athletic Association standings. After Richmond and North Carolina-Wilmington at 3-1, American and James Madison are two of five teams with 2-2 conference records.

George Mason (9-6) is another team at 2-2 in the CAA, and the Patriots will be in Annapolis tonight to face Navy at 7:30. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, Virginia will be at home in University Hall to meet Georgia Tech at 4.

American and James Madison are 6-9 overall, and both are coming off league wins. American defeated East Carolina, 75-69, in overtime Monday in Greenville, N.C. James Madison beat Richmond, 58-54, Wednesday night in Harrisonburg.

Richmond (12-3) is thought by many to be the league's strongest team, but Tapscott said he wasn't that surprised by the Dukes' victory.

"If they had beaten them at Richmond, it might have been a little more surprising," Tapscott said. "But James Madison has a very good home court situation. They are very capable and, in this league, any team can beat any other team."

The Eagles might be tied for first place had they shot better than nine of 25 from the free throw line in losing to North Carolina-Wilmington last Saturday night.

"We've won two out of three on the road and I like that," Tapscott said.

American has four players with scoring averages in double figures. Point guard Mike Sampson is leading the way with 13.7 points and 4.5 assists per game. The Eagles' second-leading scorer is junior guard Dale Spears, who hasn't started any of the 15 games, but has averaged 19 minutes and is scoring 12.7 points per game. Sophomore forward Daryl Holmes and sophomore guard Mike Sumner are the other two Eagles in double figures in scoring.

Junior forward Kennard Winchester is the Dukes' leading scorer (16.2 points per game) and rebounder (6.5). Tapscott said that Holmes or Sumner probably would be assigned to guard Winchester. Senior guard Ben Gordon is averaging 7.6 points and leads the team in assists with 5.3 per game.

One player with which American won't have to contend is 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Claude Ferdinand, who had averaged 10.8 points through the first 14 games. A James Madison spokesman said that Ferdinand and Coach John Thurston had agreed that Ferdinand would not play the rest of this semester to improve his grades, though he is eligible under university and NCAA standards.

In Charlottesville, the Cavaliers (9-8, 2-2) are coming off an 84-72 victory over Maryland.

"Besides the win," said Virginia Coach Terry Holland, "it was important in developing some confidence that we can play well for 40 minutes."

Last year, Virginia beat the Yellow Jackets three times by a combined margin of six points.

"We had three great battles last year and were fortunate to win all three," said Holland.