The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference men's basketball tournament has a new format this year and is guaranteed to have a new matchup in the championship game for the first time in seven years. There are a couple of traditions, however, that Howard University would like to keep alive.

For the first time, the tournament will have first-round games at the home site of top-seeded teams, including tonight's 7:30 tipoff at Burr Gymnasium in which Howard plays host to Morgan State. The three survivors of tonight's games will join regular season champion North Carolina A&T, which earned a first-round bye, in Greensboro, N.C., for Friday's semifinals.

The championship game will have a new look because of Howard's mediocre 15-12 season (9-7 in the league). North Carolina A&T and the Bison have met in the past six championship games, with A&T winning all six. But this year, Howard finished fourth in the league and is paired to play A&T in the semifinals if the Bison win tonight.

Howard hopes to prolong its record of always winning its first-round game, but the immediate task will be a difficult one. Morgan State (13-16, 7-8) defeated Howard in both regular season games, including an 86-83 decision before a standing-room-only crowd Saturday night at Burr.

"This has been our most difficult season here since my first one when we went 12-13," said Coach A.B. Williamson, who is in his 13th year at Howard. "We have never had so many injuries like we have had this year; we had so many people hurt that we never started the same lineup more than three straight games. We haven't had much depth up front, we haven't rebounded consistently and we have never had a team score 51 points in the second half of a ball game like Morgan did to us Saturday."

Williamson said the end of the regular season was almost a relief.

"If you coach long enough, sooner or later, you will get one of these years," he said. "The good part is that the tournament starts a whole new season, and I am encouraged. I know our kids will be pumped and I think we will beat Morgan this time."

To beat the Bears, Williamson must find answers to the team that gives Howard considerable problems with a front line that includes 6-foot-8 sophomore Marcus Sheffield, 6-7 sophomore Damone Williams and 6-5 junior Noel Liverpool.

Howard can only counter with 6-7 senior John Spencer (10.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game). With 13:44 remaining Saturday night, Spencer sat down with his fourth personal foul and Morgan State leading by one. When he returned with 7:09 to go, the Bears led by 12.