It was the second week of the college basketball season and George Washington University, a floudering program still searching for an identity under its highly regarded new coach, was considered an afterthought in Stanford's Apple Invitational.

The Colonials were supposed to be the tournament's "fourth team," a doormat for the hosts to rough up on the way to the final. Instead, George Washington whipped the Cardinal by 11 points and followed the next night with a two-point loss to Vanderbilt.

The rewards were more than a second-place trophy, more than badly needed respect and confidence. The Colonials had acquired a trait that had escaped them during five straight losing seasons.

They had learned how to win.

"When we look back at this program someday we could possibly look at that weekend," Colonials Coach Mike Jarvis said. "That could be the weekend that really made the difference in the life of GW basketball. And I say that because the hardest thing to do with any group of kids is to get them to believe and understand that they're capable of winning. And these kids have not won, so they have to learn how to do that.

"If you ever learn how to win, it's something you don't forget. It's like riding a bicycle. I'm hoping that maybe what that game did was to help us learn how to win."

The Colonials will try for their fifth victory in eight games today at 4 against Virginia Tech at Smith Center.

When Jarvis left Boston University last spring to accept GW's lucrative offer, he didn't promise miracles, and hasn't performed any. He knew it would take time. But one month into the season, the changes on and off the court have indicated that -- yes, finally -- GW has arrived.

"With Mike here, you can start to see the building of a program," said Hartford Coach Jack Phelan, after a 97-77 loss Dec. 4 to the Colonials. "He won't do it overnight. He'll do it in small phases."

Seniors Ellis McKennie and Glen Sitney started every game last season and were the team's leading scorers. They are now role players off the bench.

McKennie, the team leader in points, assists and steals last year, said his new status was difficult to accept, but he has adjusted. Jarvis doesn't leave room for compromise, saying, "It's not so much about them accepting; it's about them doing it."

Sophomore guard Dirkk Surles didn't start a game last year. He now is the team's best player, averaging 19.7 points per game on 52 percent shooting. Alvin Pearsall, a 5-foot-11, 145-pound freshman, is the starting point guard, averaging seven points with an assist-turnover ratio of better than 3 to 1.

J.J. Hudock, a 6-8 sophomore, is the team's best three-point shooter with 40 percent accuracy. He made five in a 5 1/2-minute stretch against Hartford.

"Everyone's responded well to Jarvis," said fifth-year senior Peter Young, who is averaging 7.7 points and five rebounds after playing only 27 minutes last season.

"Change isn't always an easy thing to adjust to, but in this case it's been positive in all aspects. He's also adjusted well to us. We're not the easiest team to coach, obviously, because we haven't won in five years. He's got us winning now and he's got everyone playing hard. We're really enjoying it."

Jarvis also planned to move his best low post player, sophomore Sonni Holland, to the bench and start senior Matt Nordmann in an easy victory over UMBC, but Holland chipped an ankle bone and Nordmann started anyway. Meanwhile, Holland is out until January.

Teams were keying on Holland and drawing him into foul trouble, Jarvis explained. Nordmann was starting at small forward before he was injured in a season-opening loss to Loyola (Md.) and lost his spot to Hudock, who couldn't miss.

There's one other thing to consider. A computer poll this week spit out GW as the 62nd best among 296 Division I teams -- one spot ahead of Georgetown.

The ranking means nothing, the players realize, but just maybe it says something about a program that was 1-27 two years ago.

"Sometimes it's nice to see you're not 158 or 170," McKennie said. "We know it doesn't mean much, but, hey, 62nd's not bad, is it?"

Said Jarvis: "It just shows anything can happen."

And probably will.