DETROIT (AP) _ It was no accident that the University of Detroit was the team victimized by Bradley's Hersey Hawkins the night in late February he scored 63 points.

Years and years in basketball's slow lane have left the Motor City's only Division I program a rusted, sputtering hulk.

This proud Jesuit school gave the NBA Dave DeBusschere and Spencer Haywood. The tiny campus, on the edge of a changing neighborhood a few miles from downtown, is where Dick Vitale rose to prominence as the Mouth that Roared.

Still, since nailing up the first hoops in 1905, the Titans have been invited to the National Invitation Tournament only four times and the NCAA tournament three times, the last in 1979.

Three games into the current season, Don Sicko resigned, citing coaching burnout after 5 1/2 years which included a 7-21 record last season, the Titans' fewest victories since 1969-70.

''We're at the point of diminishing returns,'' Sicko said. ''The harder we work, the fewer results we get. There's too much pressure on a single game and, for that matter, on a single shot or play.

''It shouldn't be that way.''

It was the first coaching job for Sicko, 41, who was hired because he had built a solid reputation as a recruiter while an assistant at Michigan. He was 57-88 with one winning season, 16-12 in 1984-85.

''A loss to me became a stop on the quest for the Holy Grail,'' Sicko said. ''Basketball can't be played that way.''

John Mulroy, 28, an assistant under Sicko, currently serves as interim coach. Mulroy wants the job without the interim tag, but university officials must first decide whether it's worth the time, the effort and, above all, the money it takes to compete at the Division I level.

Mulroy wants to see the program remain in Division I. So does Athletic Director Brad Kinsman.

Kinsman will have some input, but the Titans' destiny ultimately will be decided by Nicholas DeGrazia, the vice president of finance.

''The current wisdom is to continue at Division I,'' DeGrazia said. ''I have people say U-of-D could be the Georgetown of the Midwest. I don't see why that can't happen.

''However, I think this is a critical time in our history. This time out of the box, we can't afford to be wrong.''

Kinsman and DeGrazia are optimistic. But they admit the program is in a Catch-22 situation. The Titans can't win without athletes and it's hard to recruit top players without a winning tradition. The university's tough academic standards also hurt the recruiting effort.

''We will not bring in a kid who doesn't have a legitimate chance at graduating,'' Kinsman said. ''That's an extra burden on a coach. But, even with that, we think we can get it done.''

Vitale got it done, but he had his eye on the NBA. Vitale, who brought the same intensity and razzmatazz to the job that he exhibits today as a broadcaster on ESPN and ABC, only coached the Titans four years. He was athletic director in 1978 when he left to coach the Detroit Pistons.

''The key is you've got to get excitement going,'' Vitale said. ''The search committee needs to look for a leader (in a coach). You need to do something to get the same headlines Michigan and Michigan State get.

''You've got to have ties to the city. You've got to be able to get some of the great kids to stay home. That's what we did with Terry Tyler and John Long and Terry Duerod. It's not just a matter of knowing basketball.''

Kinsman agrees with Vitale. But he also knows a coach with that kind of charisma won't come cheap.

''But times have changed, too. There's a lot more at stake than there was 10 years ago when Dick was here,'' Kinsman said.

Kinsman noted, for example, that in 1978 the first-round winner of the NCAA tournament earned $40,059. In 1988, he said, the first-round payoff will be an estimated $230,700. Television also brings in big bucks. Kinsman estimates that each Big East school pulls down about $1.2 million a year in TV revenues. The Titans, on the other hand, are almost never on the tube.

''We're also hurt by not having a football program and the money it can generate,'' Kinsman said. ''Some schools don't even have a recruiting budget. Whatever it takes, they spend.''

The Titans aren't broke. There have been generous alumni contributions and the well is far from dry. But it's going to take some wins to prime the pump.

''I'd like to see them be competitive,'' DeBusschere said by telephone from his Manhattan real estate office. ''I think all alumni would.''

There is also the problem of the university itself. The student body, either despite or because of the school's excellent academic standards, has shrunk from more than 14,000 undergraduates when DeBusschere played there in the mid-1950s to about 3,200 today. Most of the students commute.

Detroit's campus, while not without a certain charm, is old and small, fronting on Livernois Avenue, a street which was ugly when it was known as the Used Car Capital of the World. Now many of the businesses nearest the campus are liquor stores and junk shops.

''There's not a good support system here on campus, academic and tutors and so forth, to hold the marginal student, so we have to recruit a brighter kid,'' Mulroy said. ''We lose some good athletes who are not quite academically advanced.

''We lose a few because they want to go to a bigger campus where they can get lost and get wild. They want more girls. Some stay away because of safety. They hear bad things about crime in Detroit.''

Mulroy thinks the Titans would do well to concentrate on becoming perhaps a regional power on the order of Dayton which, year after year, does well in the Midwest, and gets a fair number of tournament bids.

The winner of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, of which Detroit is a member, receives an automatic NCAA bid.

''If you weren't there when TV came in, I don't think you can get on the tube now,'' Mulroy said. ''Without television money, it's hard to be a Top 20 team.''

''I think we're coping very well,'' Kinsman said.

''We feel the program is on a solid foundation. We just don't have the wins.''