THE UNIVERSITY of Maryland's basketball team won only nine of 26 games last season and had a 0-14 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Under such circumstances, a second-year basketball coach would be expected to use every player at his disposal, even those whose grades were disastrous. But Maryland basketball coach Bob Wade wasn't hired just to win ball games. People also hoped that he would stress the importance of a respectable academic degree for student-athletes . . . and win. That's exactly what he has set out to do.

Two important players -- Keith Gatlin and Tony Massenburg -- were academically eligible to play under NCAA and Maryland standards. Rodney Walker, a junior transfer from Syracuse University, was eligible to practice with the team. But that wasn't good enough for Coach Wade. The coach privately set his own academic standards for all three players and sent them to work with the athletic department's new academic support unit. The message was clear: study or watch the games from the stands. Mr. Massenburg missed seven games before Coach Wade allowed him to play. Mr. Gatlin missed 10. Two and a half months after practice had begun, Coach Wade allowed Mr. Walker to work out with the team. Coach Wade, by the way, has also managed to coach his team to an 8-3 record.

This is a welcome change. The university's athletic program suffered from scandal and embarrassment in 1986. Its star, Len Bias, who died from a cocaine overdose, was 21 credit hours short of graduation in his senior year. Five of the 12 players had flunked out pending readmission, and academic standards were low. That's not exactly the kind of education that would lead to a decent job when one's athletic career was over.

Coach Wade has also forged some strong relationships in a very short time. Take Mr. Gatlin, for example. As a senior who hoped to be drafted by a professional team, Mr. Gatlin might have been angry and bitter about missing 10 games. He wasn't. "I want to be successful off the court," Mr. Gatlin says. "Coach Wade has been like a father to me." As Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell put it, "You don't find many college coaches who eat dinner every night with the team, then drop into the dorms to watch TV and talk about classes."

Coach Wade is making all the right moves. He seems almost too good to be true.