In the stretch drive of the college basketball season, no one may remember last night's Midnight Madness and the assortment of cheerleaders, marching bands and spotlighted introductions that accompanied the first official practice permitted by the NCAA.

But after a long summer of inactivity, what better way to approximate the excitement that's sure to beckon in March?

That's why American, George Mason and George Washington took advantage of the first available moment of the Oct. 15 official starting date for basketball practice. Maryland will start at midnight Saturday, when the Terrapins take the court for the first time following a self-imposed five-day delay.

Another berth in the nation's top 20 seems to be excitement enough for Georgetown, which will begin its preparations for the 1990-91 season later today at McDonough Gymnasium. The same applies to Virginia, another possible top-20 team, which will begin its first season in 16 years without Terry Holland as coach.

Jeff Jones, a former Virginia player, graduate assistant and assistant coach takes over, one of four new coaches at area Division I schools. Joining him are Mike Jarvis at George Washington, Chris Knoche at American and Butch Beard at Howard. The Bison also eschewed Midnight Madness, instead opting for two-a-day workouts for the next two weeks.

Maryland likely will do the same to try and make up for the five days of workouts it lost in the aftermath of revelations that the coaching staff watched team workouts before the official starting date of practice last season.

"You lose conditioning more than anything else," Coach Gary Williams said of the Terrapins' late start. "The players can work out by themselves and they've been working hard, but it's not as good if there's no one pushing you."

With Midnight Madness, the idea isn't actually about working as much as about giving students the chance to get an early glimpse of the team. At American, Knoche was scheduled to meet with students at a campus hangout at 11, with everyone adjourning to Bender Arena to be entertained by the band and cheerleaders before both the men's and women's teams scrimmaged for 10 minutes each.

The Patriots' celebration also was scheduled to begin at 11 at Patriot Center with a series of student competitions, including fraternity and sorority foul shooting and three-on-three tournaments. At midnight, Coach Ernie Nestor expected to work his team for 20 minutes.

With three straight 20-victory seasons but just one postseason tournament berth to show for it, George Mason has decided to upgrade its schedule in order to draw more attention nationally. The Patriots open their season at Miami on Nov. 23 and also will have nonconference dates against St. John's, Louisville and Michigan State.

"We tried it the other way and only got into a tournament because we were an automatic qualifier," said Nestor. "You had to really question whether or not we were really treading water, so we decided that this was the best way to move the program forward. . . . they say you can either do too little or too much -- this year won't be too little, that's for sure."

Georgetown is used to such daunting slates. This season the Hoyas will get to prove which basketball adage is correct: that a team with a good big man can do anything or that a squad without a head -- that is, the point guard -- will surely see its body die.

In this case, Georgetown has two excellent big men, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. The pair shared defensive player of the year honors in the Big East last season, blocking a combined 197 shots.

However, the Hoyas lost guards Mark Tillmon and Dwayne Bryant, who combined for 31 points a game a year ago. In addition, point guard David Edwards transferred to Texas A&M, while Michael Tate (James Madison) and Milton Bell (Richmond) left as well.