Today is the second and last day of preliminaries in the NCAA Track and Field Championships, which will be held Friday and Saturday at Duke University. These first two days are what George Mason Coach John Cook likes to call a "trial by fire." And while his athletes are competing, he's doing a slow burn.

"The East seems to have an inferiority complex when it comes to outdoor track and field," he said by phone from Durham. "People always ask eastern schools why they aren't winning {the NCAA championships}, but it's almost become understood that a big-time track athlete has to go west of the Mississippi or south of whatever it is that marks the south.

"Carl Lewis came from New Jersey. Why do they have to believe they have to go somewhere else for track?"

George Mason has sent its biggest contingent ever, including six individuals. The Patriots will compete in the pole vault, high jump, triple jump, high hurdles, 400 meters, 800 meters and 4x400 relay. George Mason won the IC4A title two weeks ago with a record point total, after trailing defending champion Penn State the first day, and finished third in the indoor NCAA championshps.

But no one making predictions is giving any school farther east than Austin, Tex., much chance at a high team finish.

"I can't disagree with a statement like that, honestly," said Cook. "Southwest and Far West teams traditionally are the champions of this meet. Eastern schools don't fare well outdoors. With middle distance runners, we get by indoors, but outdoors, the Southwest and Far West schools are it.

"The Southwest and Far West schools put a lot of money into track and field. In the East, most of us are happy with cross-country and a few distance runners and we don't go after the big-time track and field athletes. They don't go after the sprinters and throwers. It's sort of an unsaid thing."

As if to bear out Cook's contention, Georgetown's eight men and women entrants are all in middle distance and distance events. The Hoyas traditionally have fared well on the national level in the longer events, and senior John Trautman is considered the top seed at Duke in the 5,000 and among the top three in the 10,000.

"They really diversify the sports programs on the East Coast," said Cook. "You have guys paddling, playing lacrosse; they spread out the resources. The Southwest and Far West schools put a lot of money in the traditional sports. What happened at Maryland, when Perkins can take one of the former great track programs and say it can no longer exist, that would never happen at SMU. I don't understand. How can a school that had Jim Kehoe, Renaldo Nehemiah and Frank Costello say: 'Hey, you no longer exist.'

"They ask why eastern schools don't do better. They give four, five, six scholarships, and they field a nice cross-country team, qualify one guy in the 5,000, 10,000, but you're not going to have a team that can win."

Patriots pole vaulter Istvan Bagyula of Hungary, defending indoor NCAA champion, is the top outdoor seed. He injured his wrist in winning the outdoor IC4A title two weeks ago and hasn't trained since. But in run-throughs yesterday morning, he gave Cook the thumbs-up. Teammate Tony Barton is seeded third in the high jump. He finished second indoors. Patrick O'Connor is seeded fifth in the 400 and also will run on the 4x400 relay team, seeded fourth.

In the 400, O'Connor will have to run four times just to reach the final.

Some other George Mason athletes qualified in more than one event, but because of the high level of competition and number of preliminary heats, Cook decided to limit them to one event.

"This meet, you can't get greedy. If you did, the kids would die," he said. "I'm not trying to spread the kids out, I'm trying to score. But it could be a gamble. I might be telling you something different tomorrow."

In the women's competition, George Mason's Lauretta Miller, a former marine who finished seventh in the mile indoors, is seeded sixth in the 1,500.