To nearly anyone he met at practice yesterday, regardless of age or size, George Washington men's basketball coach Tom Penders would say: "Can you play?"

That's because the Colonials will open their Atlantic 10 Conference season against Duquesne today at Smith Center without top front-court reserve Patrick Ngongba (broken finger) and with leading scorer SirValiant Brown (sore hip) at less than full strength. Starting guard Mike King, who suffered a shoulder injury about a month ago, also will not play, and might be sidelined a few more weeks.

In another game involving an area team, Georgetown tries to recover from some familiar problems--shooting and lack of poise in the endgame--in its Big East Conference test against Seton Hall at MCI Center.

No. 12 Maryland, which endured a disheartening 68-66 loss at North Carolina State on Thursday night, has one more day to prepare for Sunday's game against No. 8 Duke at Cole Field House. Two of the most important things for Maryland will be avoiding a slow start and playing physically against a bigger Duke team. The Terrapins struggled in both of those areas against N.C. State.

"Maybe we learned something tonight," Williams said after the loss to N.C. State. "The good thing is this is the first game of the [Atlantic Coast Conference] season. . . . Maybe you learn more in this situation that will help you the next 15 games. We'll see if that is the way it works."

GW will be playing its first game without the 6-foot-8 Ngongba, who averaged nearly 19 minutes and about four rebounds. He will undergo season-ending surgery Monday after realizing earlier this week that the finger injury he suffered in mid-December was a break instead of a sprain.

Penders said 7-foot sophomore Albert Roma will get most of Ngongba's minutes as the Colonials (5-7) try to break their third two-game losing streak. Roma has taken 10 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds during a total of 80 minutes.

Penders said Brown, who averages 25.9 points, was improved from the injury he suffered while taking a charge from a much larger Old Dominion player near midcourt during Monday night's 82-75 road loss to the Monarchs.

"But he'll be nowhere near 100 percent," Penders said.

As for King, a starter for eight of the nine games he played this season, there is disagreement between him and team trainer Chris Hennelly about the severity of his shoulder injury.

King yesterday said he consulted "a couple of specialists" and was told he suffered a second-degree separation while trying to run around a pick and colliding with a Siena player Dec. 11. The expected amount of missed time, he said, was six to eight weeks from the injury.

"If I could get out there right now, I'd play," he said. "It's hard to be on the bench watching the team struggle. But my shooting motion, getting my arms up, gives me a lot of pain."

Hennelly said King suffered a sprain and that such injuries range in severity from one to three weeks, with three being the most serious. He said King's was "a grade one-plus" and added: "Right now, we're treating him as day-to-day. We have no time restrictions on him."

Georgetown (8-4) made just 20 percent of its field goal attempts during the first half of its conference-opening loss at Providence on Wednesday, and trailed by 19 points early in the second half. The Hoyas rallied and gained a one-point lead with 3 1/2 minutes left, but Providence pulled ahead and gained a 55-48 victory.

"At the beginning of the game [when the Friars took a 23-11 lead], I don't think our guys adjusted to the increase in intensity that a conference game has," Coach Craig Esherick said. "But we're not going to shoot 20 percent again the rest of the season, I guarantee it."

Senior co-captain Jameel Watkins and his relatively young teammates endured an all-too-common scene: the Hoyas failing to execute well in the final minutes of a close game. They lost six games by six or fewer points last season.

"We've got to learn from our mistakes," he said. "I think that toward the end of the year, we'll look back and say we should have won that game."

Today's Games

MEN

American vs.

UNC Wilmington, 2

George Mason at

James Madison, 7:30

Georgetown vs.

Seton Hall, noon

George Washington vs. Duquesne, 2

Howard vs.

North Carolina A&T, 4

Virginia vs. Georgia Tech, 1:30

Others: CCNY at Catholic in Catholic Classic, 4; Gallaudet at Philadelphia Pharmacy tournament, 6; Marymount at Christopher Newport, 7; West Chester at Columbia Union, 8:30; Montgomery College-Germantown at Chesapeake, 1; Montgomery-Rockville at Charles, 7; Montgomery-Takoma Park at Cecil, 7; Maryland Bible at Washington Bible, 6

WOMEN

Georgetown vs.

Notre Dame, noon

Howard vs.

North Carolina A&T, 1:30

Navy at Stony Brook, 2

Others: Gallaudet vs. Delaware Valley at Elizabethtown tournament, 5; West Chester at Columbia Union, 6:30