Surely, someone is joking. How can this be the ACC basketball tournament? The coaches actually get along; the players apologize for fouls: Billy Packer is nowhere to be seen and the three-day affair means nothing toward postseason play.

It just illustrates what happens when you turn something over to women. This was the first annual women's ACC basketball tournament - and there will be a second annual, although Maryland and North Carolina State might have to play for the championship by mail.

There were two major conclusions to be drawn after the final not-so-dainty dribble today found Maryland beating North Carolina State for the title one harsh and one heartening. At the moment, women have progressed from playing in near-empty small gyms to playing in near-empty large gyms. But the future looks exceedingly bright.

The young women can play - and the emphasis is on young because many of the standouts. Genia Beasley and Trudi Lacey, Kris Kirchner, Bobbie Mims. Bernie McGlade and three Washington-area freshmen, have at least two more years of competition.

Several behind-the-back dribbles were sighted as were blind passes off three-on-one breaks for layups. More importantly, Maryland and State showed the possibilities for women playing swift, well conceived basketball with pressure at both ends of the floor.

"And the level of play will continue to leap for another three years or so," said Maryland Coach Chris Weller, "because the new players coming in will be coming from the same backgrounds as the freshmen we have now."

Like all else in semi-amateur sports, the schools that spend the most money on women's basketball win the most games. Among ACC women, that means Maryland and State, each of which will offer 12 full scholarships next season.

Wake Forest and Duke offer almost no scholarship money. State beat Wake by 54 this season; easing off at the end, Maryland beat Duke by 70. North Carolina, Virginia and Clemson offer more aid, so they lose to State and Maryland by less.

With apologies to both because the analogy seems useful, Weller and State Coach Kay Yow might well be the Everett Case and Frank McGuire of women's ACC hoops.

Case made men's basketball popular in the ACC - and Carolina hired McGuire to beat him. Then everyone else spent a mint to beat both State and Carolina. And the ACC became both exceptionally strong and - lately at least - exceptionally even.

How long is Duke going to tolerate its present state? Or Wake? And the quicker schools spend loads of money the more sane women's basketball is likely to become.

What's that again? Well, Weller believes that if schools allocate lots of money for scholarships there will be almost none left for the incidentals - meaning recruiting - that have turned men's basketball into a frequently vicious sport.

"The men are heading in our direction (with fewer visits both by coaches to prospects to schools)," Weller said, "and we're heading in theirs. Actully, people recruit Maryland more than the other way around as far as our program is concerned. What money I spent on recruiting came out of my own pocket."

And one measure of progress at Maryland is that Weller now at least has more pockets, if not an overwhelming amount of money to put in them.

She would like to let her players know - once and for all times - that her wearing that white jacket and blue pants nearly all the time two years ago had nothing to do with superstition. With the money she was making as a graduate assistant and then interim coach, that's all the clothes she could afford.

So how come Weller knocks on wood whenever the tiniest negative thought about one of her players enters her mind? Tara Heiss, for one, insists Weller sounds like a veritable woodpecker at times.

Unlike ACC men, ACC women rarely get more than a few inches off the floor. Only Heiss penetrates like a true point guard. The harshest language heard throughout the tournament came when someone on the Virginia bench called one official a "creep." But State and Maryland have fine perimeter shooters.

Like ACC men, Maryland women believe all the Carolina schools are involved in a conspiracy against them. The latest example was the sudden shift of sites for next season's tournament, from Maryland to State.

Maryland drew the role of host - and homecourt advantage - from a hat, Weller said. It then became known shortly before Friday's semi-final that conference officials had decided to allow State to host the tournament, presumably because chances for large crowds seemed better there.

"They'll do anything to win, won't they?" Weller muttered. "Well, they might play the thing without us."

Hmmm, sounds like the sort of budding feud from which profits evolve.