The most fascinating person in area basketball the next several weeks will be neither Elvin Hayes nor Bobby Dandridge. It will be Lefty Driesell, whose impact on Washington has been more significant than that of the Bullets and whose imminent actions either will give him one more chance for the glory he so covets or grease the path of his demise.

Driesell is one of the nation's few athletic personalities capable of inspiring admiration and anger in consecutive breaths. He lifted college basketball here out of the pits, forced Georgetown, George Washington and American universities to be competitive because he made Maryland wildly successful. In fact, the Bullets came to town six years ago grabbing Lefty's coattails.

Only 13 coaches in the history of college basketball, those who have won at least 300 games and been at a four-year school a minimum of 10 seasons, have a better record than Driesell's. That's right, Clair Bee (410-86) is first, Adolph Rupp (874-190) second, John Wooden (667-161) third and the left-hander (375-150) 14th.

With the same qualifications, only Dean Smith has a better record among active coaches. Nobody could have reversed Maryland's record, financially and on the court, more quickly than Driesell. In a profession that attracts workaholics, nobody logs longer hours.

And yet . . .

At a school with an ideal location and ideal facilities, Driesell never has been to the pinnacle of college basketball - the final four of the NCAA tournament.

In 10 years, or long enough for the normal recruiting cycles to pass at least three times, Driesell never has won the Atlantic Coast Conference and won the regular-season title only once.

Driesell has not achieved the standard of excellence in his business - 20 victories - the last three seasons, although that goal is becoming easier and easier to reach.

Only John Lucas has been more than modestly successful in professional basketball. At least a half-dozen players entered Maryland with as much potential. Does the man know an X from an O?

When he needs a gifted center desperately, Driesell is unable to sign one.

So far.

The one lesson veteran Driesell watchers have learned is to never say never, that until Ralph Sampson and some others actually enroll elsewhere in the fall, Lefty has a chance.

But small items that have and have not appeared in the papers lately offer both a bleak present and a promising future, if Driesell moves wisely. He has lost two assistants and well may lose the third this week; he has signed one player, who is not especially good by final-four standards.

"Lefty's back's against the wall, no question," said a man familiar with Maryland and most of college basketball. "But it's not anything he can't recover from. And what he does pretty soon is the key to whether he survives or moves on."

Driesell needs Sampson the way he needed Moses Malone. And if hiring his high-school coach, who will be interviewed this week, guarantees that, it would be a brilliant, though distasteful, ploy.

Every coach and every school passionate about sports probably has compromised some standards sometimes-and Driesell, after all, is paid to win games rather than teach ethics.

If he cannot sign the dominant big man and the swift point guard he wants immediately, Driesell must sign assistants capable of recruiting excellent players and teaching them basketball at its most sophiscated level.

What he needs is a young George Raveling AND a young Jim Maloney and - fortunately for him - he has the opportunity to find and hire them. And then he must allow them to execute, the recruiter to recruit and the teacher to teach.

"One of Lefty's problems the last several years," another basketball insider said, "is that he's recruited 'names' instead of 'players.' He's signed stars, but he hasn't signed players always to fit a need."

How far is Maryland from re-entering the nation's top 10 and the ACC elite?

Not as far as most people think, because the ACC enjoys a reputation based more on image than fact. At the moment, the Big Ten is the best basketball conference in the country - and has been for several years. And the Southeastern Conference is second.

If Sampson signs with Kentucky, the SEC will have an overwhelming advantage over the ACC. Georgia, for example, has recruited almost as many quality players itself this season as all eight ACC schools combined. If Sampson signs with Virginia or North Carolina - or Driesell pulls a seemingly impossible coup - the ACC pulls even.

One coach intensely involved with Maryland and keenly aware of Driesell's history wonders whether driesell has "lost his edge the last year or so. He's a rich man - and I know that's important to him. How much is he still willing to push?

"His teams at Davidson always played tough defense. His teams lately at Maryland simply don't. And this year I think he went after Sampson and (Sam) Bowie so hard he left himself without any backups. Usually, Lefty recruits the whole country."

Las year was not the disaster so many assumed. With an exceptionally young team, Maryland played an exceptionally tough schedule and beat some exceptionally tough teams. Two embarrassments come to mind. One was a loss to Carolina, but not the 29-point rout in theACC tournament.

Smtih had better players that night. But with Mike O'Koren and Dave Colescott out with injuries and Al Wood playing with stitches in one hand, Carolina was inferior to Maryland during its regular-season game in Cole Field House - and still won. Also, Maryland should have beaten Ohio State in the NIT in Cole.

Maryland's 19-11 record was about as much as anyone could expect last season. If Driesell continues to recruit poorly, or thires the wrong assistants, that would be the disaster - and his future at Maryland will be grim.

He also could be back in the national spotlight again within two years, such are the limitless and quick possibilities with the proper players.

"Coaches who say they don't like to recruit and like to coach," said Hugh Durham, architect of that soon-to-be-obvious victory machine at Georgia, "are not going to get to do a lot of what they like."