This has been a strange year for Notre Dame basketball Coach Richard (Digger) Phelps.

It began with rumors that he would accept a lucrative offer to coach the New York Knicks.

Then his ninth Notre Dame team started off 7-0 and climbed to No. 3 in the nationals rankings.

That streak and the lofty ranking all came apart Dec. 29 when the Fighting Irish were soundly beaten by Kentucky, even though the Wildcats were without freshmen stars Sam Bowie and Dirk Minniefield and sophomore dropout Dwight Anderson.

After that defeat, Phelps said he would drop the Kentucky series if the Wildcats would not agree to playing home and home instead of playing every year at "neutral" Freedom Hall in Louisville where Phelps is 0-7.

To add insult to insult the Irish played perhaps their worst game in five years eight days later, losing to San Francisco.

But the Irish rebounded. They barely survived, 70-69, against Villanova; beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion for the fourth straight season, and take a five-game winning streak, an 11-2 record and a No. 8 ranking in the polls into today's nationally televised game with Maryland at 1:30 p.m. (WRC-TV-4) at South Bend, Ind.

"The UCLA game was a real uplift for us," Phelps said. "We needed something like this to get us going. We had the kind of consistency and patience and shot selection we've expected -- it just took us a little while to put things together. If we play to our potential that way, we're a very good basketball team."

How good the Irish are is a question still unanswered. Two wins over UCLA do not mean what they used to and the rest of the Irish victories have been over the likes of Valparaiso, Northwestern, TCU and St. Louis.

Quickness is the big question for Notre Dame and that is something Maryland (14-2) has in abundance.

The Irish are a strong rebounding team and have three excellent scorers in forwards Kelly Tripucka (15.5) and Tracy Jackson (14-3) and senior guard Rich Branning (13.9).

They also have one of the nation's most underrated all-round players in 6-foot-7 guard Bill Hanzlik, who missed the first six games of the season with a hand injury. He can score inside or outside, is an excellent defensive player and may end up guarding Albert King.

As usual, Phelps likely will go to his bench often, bringing in centers Tim Andree and Gilbert Salinas to spell Orlando Woolridge, and sometimes will use two of the three together for more height. Woolridge (6.5) and Tripucka (6.0) are the leading rebounders.

Notre Dame went to the final four of the NCAA tournament two years ago and was in the final eight last year. But this year's team may not be as good because of the lack of quickness. Phelps has talked almost constantly of the team's potential, but the Irish have yet to be consistently excellent.