Like a ditchdigger striking oil, Maryland basketball has rather accidentally crowned a new king. And he won't be confused with the demure Albert.

Ernest Graham's crown is aglow this season. He has captured the hearts of the Maryland faithful with his hearts of the Maryland faithful with his heretofore unseen 30-foot jumpers, his team-leading 18.8 scoring average (up from 6.4 as a reserve last year) and his school-record 44 points in the splendid upset of North Carolina State.

Graham, who will lead 1/-2 Maryland against Wake Forest today at 1 at Cole Field House (WJLA-TV-7, WMAR-TV-2), also has caught the fans' attnetion with his sometimes controversial patter. He is a talker, a finger-pointer.

Thisseason, he has become not merely a starter but a show , and his act has drawn some criticism, earning him a reputation he says he doesn't want.

"Everyone's writing about my attitude. It's depressing," said Graham. "I don't want a reputation. I just want to play ball. I'm just going to have to cut down on my fun and be more basic."

Because Graham's enthusiasm knows no bounds, he drew a technical foul this year while at the free-throw line. He swished one free shot, pointed at an opposing player (the same one he had earlier stuck out his tongue at), then pointed to the scoreboard and said, "Another point."

Last Wednesday, Graham and George Washington's Tom Tate almost came to blows after a finger-pointing episode.

"No, it's not getting out of hand," said Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell. "That's just his personality. I like his competitive spirit and I wouldn't want to change it. That's why he's such a great athlete.

"I've told him it makes him look bad, and I don't want him to lose his cool. Last year, I think Lee Raker (of Virginia) baited Ernest into hitting him (Graham was ejected). I used to do it (bait players) all the time, but it was easier then, with just two officials.

"If I were playing against Ernest, I'd punch him when the refs weren't looking and let him swing back and try to get him thrown out of the game.

"John Lucas was that way a little, but not like Ernest. I've never had a player quite like Ernest."

To begin to understand why and how Graham plays the way he does, it is necessary to understand that he is unconscious of everything except the game, which become his private universe.

Graham does not finger-point to show for fans. He does it because it comes to mind in the natural flow of the game, as it comes to every player's mind. But other players are codgnizant of things like television cameras, newspaper stories, repercussions. Graham thinks only of the game and he is a glutton for it.

At times, when he seems mystically in tune with his world, as he was when he hit 18 of 26 field goals and eight of 10 free throws against N.C. State, Graham recalled, "I had no idea I had that many points. I've just been playing so long. It's just ball.

"It's hard to explain how I feel about ball. Sometimes I lay down and think, 'What am I going to do with my life?' I'm striving to be free. I just want to live well, be my own boss. One day, I want to wake up and have no one tell me what to do -- like being a kid, going out and playing all day. I want that freedom again.

"I dream a lot; it gives me incentive. Every night when I go to bed, I say my prayers. Then I just lay there, thinking about me doing my thin. If feel good when I think about it.

"I think of me in a game. I can't see faces -- every face is blurred but mine. Ball is just part of me; it's part of my life. It's inside of me. It's all over me.

"When I play basketball, I can be at ease because I know what I'm doing. It's like that world I talked about where I can do what I want, feell free."

At Maryland, Graham has been genuinely fond of Al King, the nationally prominent forward. But there is no masking Graham's competitiveness with King, as well as with other highly touted players.

While King was recruited by schools in virtually all 50 states, Graham names Texas-El Paso as "the only school in the world that wanted me." Although Graham is from Baltimore, Maryland's staff didn't notice him until they want to an all-star game to observe King.

As a freshman, Graham fretted on the bench, playing backup to King. Graham remembers a television show last year that expounded on the greatness of King and some other Atlantic Coast Conference freshmen, "and all they did was barely flash my name on own show when I started our last game. I felt I was as good as those guys.

"I'm not used to being left out. Like Sports Illustrated did that thing on the nation's super sophomores, and I'm glad they had Albert in it -- he is super. But they're not better than me. I hope they don't feel like they are."

Gradam only emerged at the end of last season when King injured his back and swingman Billy Bryant's defensive problems put him in disfavor, clearing some minutes for Graham.

When it became apparent this year that Graham was the team's best outside shooter, he had won his battle for a starting position at guard, where he could play with King instead of behind him.

Ironically, what drew the staff's attention to Graham was his willngness to be aggressive on defense. Now the Terps' most prolific point pruducer, Graham originally concentrated on defense in an attempt to secure playing time. Defense is probably the weakest part of King's game.

While coaches are constantly imploring other players to wave their hands on defense (apparently players feel this looks silly, and it does), Graham will overplay his man, wave hands, arms, legs, and of course, talk to him.

Away from the court, Graham is pleasant and polite, concerned about how he appears to others and about the welfare of others. He talks with great sincerity of his love for his family. During pregame warmups one night, a reporter at courtside was smacked in the face with a runaway basketball, and Graham was the only person to come over and inquire if the reporter was all right. When he speaks, he will sometimes repeat a statement to correct his grammar.

He is self-conscious about the gold cap on a front tooth and says, "I hope to get it out of my mouth," but adds in good humor, "I've always been different some kind of way. I used to be taller than everybody but amy tooth is the only way some people around here can tell the difference between me and Albert and (Larry) Bibson and Buck (Williams)."

Graham is like a one-man traveling circus and you never know which ring to look at or what act is coming next. When the team went to Denver, it was Graham who stood in as a disc jockey at a disco, and in Las Vegas it was Graham who won $400 finessing a slot machine.

Graham also delights in being the team comedian, thinking up outlandish nicknames for each of his mates.

"It's important to me to see someone smile. Someday I want to do something that makes a lot of people happy," said Graham.

"I like to keep us loose. I was so sad sitting on the bench last year. I decided I'd never be sad again."