Because there was no appropriate word already available, Duke basketball Coach Bill Foster invented a verb several years ago: "to spanarkel."

It is among other things, the act of stealing basketballs, directing court traffic, dissecting the intricate flow of 10 people, flipping just the right pass, hitting the pressure jumper and looking awkward doing the most amazing things. It is to sparkle in the way only Duke's Jim Spanarkel does.

Maryland fans remember him as the pigeon-toed guard with the Jersey accent who looks like an academic All-America and grades out like one. He also is the fellow who scored 33 points against the Terrapins at Maryland last year.

Spanarkel hadn't been spanarkeling much earlier this season, but he's beginning to bedazzle once again. That is hardly comforting news for the 17th-ranked Terrapins, who play at third-ranked Duke today at 4 p.m. (WJLA-TV-7).

"He's kind of an awkward-looking player in a way," a Duke official admitted. "You have to watch him over half dozen games to really appreciate him."

That may explain why Spanarkel, now an All-America, was not bombarded with attention his senior year in high school. He visited Duke, Ohio University, Wake Forest, Holy Cross and William and Mary; choosing Duke for its progressive coaching staff and academic reputation. He is thinking of going to law school.

Spanarkel is typically good-natured about the malady which makes him appear awkward: his extremely pigeon-toed feet.

"I'm not nearly as pigeon-toed now as I was when I was younger," he said. "It was blatant whenever I walked."

Spanarkel is a curiosity, only because he is a combination of characters that seem to be in conflict.

There is unmistakable Spanarkel, the unmistakable jock who has his own set of keys to the Duke gym and to the remote control device that lowers the baskets from the ceiling.

Spanarkel practices on his own every day between classes and becomes totally engrossed with the sport from September to April. Over that span, he says he does not take as much as a sip of beer, and relaxes only by watching television and eating an occasional dinner with his sister.

"I turn into a TV freak during the season," Spanarkel said. "Sometimes I wonder if I unwind at all."

There also is Spanarkel the philosopher-scholar, who talks convincingly of putting the basketball experience in perspective, of being grateful that Duke students do not idolize him.

He also earns straight As and shuns the ever-swelling field of admiring coeds in favor of his high school sweetheart, Janet McPherson, home in Jersey City.

"I'm lucky to have a family and friends who would respect me even if we do fail, who stressed academics, and who made me think of myself as a person, not a basketball player," Spanarkel said. "I don't try to push the basketball image."

After two straight seasons as Duke's leading scorer, Spanarkel has a different role this year, making more concentrated use of his ball-handling and mental skills.

Duke's offensive flow goes inside with more fervor than ever before, to power forward Gene Banks and to center Mike Gminski, who may be the nation's best big man this year.

After three seasons of starting out as unknowns, Duke's Blue Devils checked in this year as preseason favorites to win the national championship after losing to Kentucky in the NCAA final last year.

Spanarkel and friends, the country's premier hugging and hand-slapping team, had a new obstacle to deal with: the pressure of being considered the country's premier basketball team.

"There was an adjustment phase everybody went through -- the coaches and the players," said Spanarkel. "We had to adjust to something we had never experienced before. Every time we looked, we were in the paper and on television. Every little thing that pops up in town they want a Duke player there. I enjoy it but it's almost ridiculous.

"(Sports information directors) Tom Mickle and Johnny Moore set up all our interviews now. We used to have to go out and dig up our own.

"We had to put the whole thing in perspective. People have higher expectations of us than we do of ourselves. We understand we're not going to play perfect every night. We're content if we win a game by one point and play poorly. With 30 games a season, it's impossible to play well every time.

"I don't worry about being No. 1 and living up to other people's standards. Outside pressures like that are fun for the fans and the media but it shouldn't be a factor in a game. I want to win a national championship and I'm sure a lot of people expect us to. But realistically, we have to worry about our conference."

Duke hearts reeled when the Blue Devils lost back-to-back games in New York's Holiday Festival (Ohio State and St. John's) and fell from the No. 1 spot.

Quietly the Devils worked on their slightly revamped offense and new defensive twists. Once strictly a 2-3 zone team, Duke has now mixed in some man to man.

No team in recent memory has won the NCAA tournament playing strictly zone.After Duke's defeat in the final to Kentucky last year, the word spread that a weakness had been found in the zone. Duke seemed to stand by helplessly while Kentucky's Jack Givens shot the Wildcats to the NCAA championship with 41 points.

Only in their most recent games, an 84-66 victory over Virginia, a 69-64 decision over Marquette and a 75-60 win over Wake Forest, have the new Blue Devils started to really jell.

Gminski scored 72 points in the three games, Duke is averaging 13 fewer points a game this season, but the defensive improvements have helped make the Blue Devils a better team than last year.

"I think we're all set," said Spanarkel. "We're starting to click."

Part of Spanarkel's early season problem had been a salt deficiency, which gave him a weak feeling in his legs. He now takes salt tablets at half-time and after games. Once again, he's spanarkeling.