"We have got a heckuva ball club, I guarantee you that. When it comes to the big games, we'll be there. We can play with anybody in this league, in the country." -- Lefty Driesell, Jan. 3, 1980

When Lefty Driesell declared his team ready to play with anyone in the Atlantic Coast Conference three weeks ago, one could hear the sound of stifled giggles throughout the league.

Everyone had heard Driesell boast of his team's prowess in the past, only to enter league play and find out the Terrapins were only third or fourth best.

That seemed especially true this year. Maryland's 9-1 mark in its first 10 games raised few eyebrows because the caliber of the competition was not impressive. Surely, this team with no depth, a 6-foot-8 center and a point guard who rarely shot could not compete with the likes of North Carolina, Duke and Virginia.

Now, three weeks later, with three of four Tobacco Road games behind them, the Terps lead the ACC with a 5-1 record and may well crack the top 10 for the first time in four years when the national rankings are released this morning.

And so, the inevitable question comes up. What's right with the Terps?

"Last May at the ACC coaches' meeting Lefty was moaning to me about his recruiting, how he hadn't gotten this or that and how he didn't have any depth," North Carolina State Coach Norman Sloan said yesterday. "I told him it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

"Lefty's such a good recruiter that he over-recruited for several years. You can have too much talent and he did. You can only play five guys at a time and those that aren't playing are unhappy.

"Now he's got a happy team.Ernest Graham and Albert King are where they belong and so is Greg Manning. He's got a backup center (Taylor Baldwin) who knows he's a backup center and isn't unhappy because he's behind Buck Williams.

"I told Lefty a little while ago that if he wants to mess up a good thing he should go out and have a good recruiting year. Then he'd have too much talent again since everyone's coming back."

Sloan, undoubtedly influenced by the fact that his team plays in Cole Field House Wednesday, voted the Terps third in this week's UPI poll. "The way they're playing right now, I think they deserve to be that high," he said. "Besides DePaul and Oregon State, who are you going to rank higher?"

In an ideal world, a basketball coach uses eight players regularly, each of whom has a clearly defined role. Maryland is close to that with seven players, all with clearly defined duties, except for Dutch Morley and Reggie Jackson, who are battling for playing time at the point guard spot.

But even there, both players seem to understand that Driesell is going to play them according to who is hot and according to the situation. "It's okay with me if Dutch starts as long as I feel I can come in and help," said Jackson, whose play has improved dramatically the last two weeks. "I think I can score more than I'm in but I don't have to with the kind of players we have up front."

Two men have keyed the success of this team -- King and Graham. That is not a knock at Williams at center or Manning at wing guard, both of whom are playing well. But the forwards make Maryland go.

King has blossomed into the superstar everyone predicted he would be when he first arrived at Maryland three seasons ago. He is shooting superbly (58 percent) and averaging 22 points a game. Right now, King, Hawkeye Whitney of N.C. State and Mike Gminski of Duke are the three most productive players in the league.

King has tried to downplay his more assertive role this year. He talks constantly of the outstanding play of others, usually shrugging off his own performances with comments like, "I'm just trying to help the team win."

But clearly, he has been stung by past criticism, a man determined to prove that he was not overrated in high school. "No one has worked harder at improving his game than Albert," Driesell said. "He's made himself a better player, a more consistent shooter. He's just playing great."

So is Graham. No one in the league was more heavily criticized during the last two seasons than the 6-foot-7 junior from Baltimore. He was an unabashed no-conscience chucker, a one-on-one player who could score 30 points in a game and still hurt his team.

That was Graham the guard. When Driesell moved him back to his natural position of forward he became a different player, big enough and strong enough to rebound. Not handling the ball on the outside as much, he also was less likely to put up a bad shot. Now, Graham has suddenly blossomed into one of the better all-round players (19 points and nine rebounds a game) in the ACC.

"Where in the country can you find a better pair of forwards?" Sloan queried, echoing a comment made by Driesell recently. "When those two are on, Maryland is tough to beat."

King and Graham need, and have received, very strong support from Williams and Manning. Williams, the 6-8 sophomore from Rocky Mount, N.C., has more than justified his move to center since he returned from his broken finger. He dominated the inside Sunday in Maryland's 92-86 win over North Carolina.

Manning may be as good a guard going to the basket as there is in the conference. He is shooting 63 percent from the floor for the season and rarely takes a bad shot.

"They're playing sensational basketball," Carolina Coach Dean Smith said. "As long as they stay healthy, they can beat anybody."

The terps have another thing going for them -- the role of underdog. That may be as important as any other factor in their current 13-2 record.

Because Driesell's last three teams had not fared well in the ACC (an 18-23 record over the last three years) it was widely held that the coach had lost his touch, and perhaps his enthusiam, and would shove off for big dollars at SMU after this season.

"We've gotten a lot of bad publicity in this program the last few years," Graham said. "People always put down the Maryland Terps. They say we play one-on-one, we cant beat Carolina, we can't win big games.

"And people are always implying that coach can't coach. We hear all that stuff. We read. We have something to prove to people."

Certainly, they still have a lot to prove. Driesell has won one regular-season ACC title at Maryland (1975) and has never won the ACC Tournament. Sunday's win, impressive as it was, assures neither a regular-season title nor a tournament win.

It does mean that Maryland must be reckoned with. It also means that with North Carolina missing James Worthy (broken leg) and Duke missing Kenny Dennard (thigh bruise), the Terps have as good a chance to finish first as anyone in the league.

Driesell has used his seven players effectively. The team is happy, playing well and with confidence. But now, they no longer are underdogs. The Terps are going to be nationally ranked and a team to be taken seriously by its opponents.

"Last year we had a couple of big wins, then played badly our next game," Driesell said. "We have to avoid that."

So far, Maryland has avoided the pitfalls of recent seasons. By low-keying his team's talent for the first time in years; by giving each player a clearly defined role, and by putting round pieces into round holes (Graham at forward; Manning at the wing guard) Driesell has coached this team into the top 10.

Now, the players have to keep themselves there.