Maryland Athletic Director Carl James, concerned about the sharp decline in attendance at Cole Field House this season, said the Terrapins will play a tougher nonconference schedule next year.

"The way you instill pride in your school and your program is by having your team play against the best," James said. "Our attendance this year has been hurt by a combination of things, students being away from campus when we're playing at home; and people who have bought tickets not coming to the games because of the caliber of the opposition."

Maryland's first five home games -- against Maryland-Eastern Shore, Brown, Catholic, Georgia Tech and Bucknell -- drew a total of 33,043 fans, an average of 6,607 per game less tahan half the capacity of the 14,500 -- seat field house. None of the five games was competitive and those who showed up were generally silent.

Earlier this month, star forward Albert King admitted it was hard to get psyched up for such mediocre opposition and said he wished the Terps played tougher opponents in December.

Coach Lefty Driesell steadfastly has defended the schedule, usually by pointing out that other schools of Maryland's caliber play weak December schedules.

"I think if you're the No. 1-ranked team in the country or ranked very high you can play lesser opponents and still draw well," James said. "I can remember when fans used to go to N.C. State games just to watch David Thompson and Tom Burleson warm up.

"But we're not in that situation. Four years ago Maryland had frequent sellouts and televising a game locally was a public service. Now, when we televise locally, we probably hurt attendance."

Although Driesell, as basketball coach, has a major say in the scheduling, he tried to band off reaponsibility for the poor attendance when asked about it.

"I'm concerned, sure I am," he said. "But my job is to win ball games, not fill up seats.I'm not paid to do that, someone else is."

Asked why he thought attendance has declined Driesell said, "Maybe it's because we haven't been in the top 10 for a while (since 1976). I don't know what it is. But whoever's counting the crowds is doing it wrong because this building is sold out every game."

Technically, Driesell is correct, Maryland reserves up to 8,000 seats a game for students and has bout 6,000 student season ticketholders. But student interest in the nonconference schedule was so low this year that James suspended the rule requiring students to pick up tickets for a game prior to game night. The rule will return for ACC games. In addition to the numerous student no-shows, there have been many no-shows among non-student season-ticket holders, James said.

When students do not claim all their seats, Maryland puts the rest on sale. And there has been little interest in buying those tickets, as the attendance figures prove.

In addition to losing some revenue because few people have been buying single-game tickets, Maryland is losing considerable revenue on the Maryland Invitation Tournament, scheduled for this weekend.

In 1974, when UCLA won the tournament, it was a sellout both nights, with a total sale of 29,000 tickets. (There are no student tickets for the tournament.) But since that year, with Driesell scheduling consistently mediocre opposition, attendance has dropped steadily, reaching only 14,899 for two nights last year.

This year, with two weak teams -- Miami of Ohio and Harvard -- and one solid non-top--20 team, Temple, in the field, James said he expects to draw more than 6,000 fans a night.

Although he would not reveal the names of the three teams scheduled to play in the next year's MIT, James said, "They are the same type of teams as this year. We have to change that," he added. "We need a heavyweight in here. We need to have a Kentucky, an Indiana, a Purdue or a UCLA playing to draw fans. I think that's obvious now."

James also said that he was thinking about broaching the idea of cohosting the tournament to Georgetown Athletic Director Frank Rienzo. "If we could have Georgetown and Maryland play good outside teams the first night and perhaps play for the championship the second night, we'd have a great tournament," James said.

Maryland and Georgetown have yet to agree to play next season, although James said he is "still optimistic" that their differences will be worked out. j

Maryland's schedule for next December still is incomplete, but James said he is trying to open on the road because the first weekend of the season is over Thanksgiving. The Terps will also be away the first week in December to play in a tournament at Syracuse and away Monday, Dec. 13, to play at Louisville, a return for a game the Cardinals played here last year.

"We need to improve the quality of our schedule for next year and for years to come," James said. "We want to play all our local opponents and a quality nonconference schedule. And we want to play when students and faculty are on campus. But we will play a heavier schedule next year."

If some of those heavier opponents come to Cole -- and they will, according to James -- perhaps the building will rock again as it did in the mid-70's. Right now, as one Maryland official admitted last week, the silence is deafening.