This is college basketball's version of Paradise Lost.

Two years ago, the Duke basketball team was a darling of American sport. It captured the imagination of fans throughout the nation when, with two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior starting, the Blue Devils marched to the national championship game.

After losing that game to Kentucky, 94-88, they came onto the court, arms linked, to receive their trophies. As one national magazine writer put it: "Kentucky won the national championship in St. Louis but Duke won the nation's heart."

Coach Bill Foster was building a dynasty. His team was young and held great promise.

As recently as five weeks ago Duke was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Then the team dropped seven of 12 games, several of them by embarrassing margins. Now in sixth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 5-6 record, Duke hosts first-place Maryland Saturday (WJZ-TV-13, 3 p.m.; WJLA-TV-7, 3:30 p.m., delayed).

To add to its woes, rumors are circulating that Foster is thinking about leaving.

According to informed sources, Foster has received a firm offer to replace retiring Frank McGuire at South Carolina, and, according to those close to Foster, he is seriously considering the job.

In six years at Duke Foster has turned its basketball fortunes around, taking what had been a 10-16 club the year before he arrived to the national final in 1978. Last year, the Blue Devils boasted a 22-8 record and Top 10 ranking.

This year, even with the current slide, his team is 17-7.

South Carolina is an independent. there would be none of the pressures which are so much a part of coaching in the ACC. Foster could arrange the schedule to almost ensure an NCAA bid each year. In addition, the facilities are better.

If he went to South Carolina, Foster would no longer be working 12 miles down the road from North Carolina's Dean Smith, who is thought to be a diety be many basketball fans in this state. This frustrates Foster and his supporters, who point out that his five-year record at Duke is better than Smith's first five years at Carolina.

Foster has been somewhat of a nomadic coach, but each job move has been one that would generally be considered a move up the coaching ladder -- Bloomsburg State to Rutgers to Utah to Duke. Foster always wanted to coach in the ACC. Now, he may want to get out of the conference.

While the thought of losing Foster may have left the team depressed, the players insist publicly that the rumors are not the reason for their current four-game losing streak.

"It's a cop-out to blame our play on that," senior co-captain Bob Bender said. We know Coach Foster is behind us and working for us. The rumors have nothing to do with making a jump shot or getting a rebound."

One Duke official pointed out that, "Most of these kids chose Duke because of Bill Foster. How can the thought of his leaving not affect them? I'm not even on the team and I lie awake in bed at night thinking about it."

A local sports editor blasted Duke this week for not "doing anything and everything to keep Bill Foster from leaving." He specifically slammed Athletic Director Tom Butters, who took a two-week vacation while the South Carolina rumors were building to their current fever pitch.

Today's edition of the student newspaper carried an editorial with a ringing endorsement of Foster, urging the university to "do anything" to keep him. Foster will be presented a plaque of appreciation by the student body before the game Saturday.

"I'm just trying to concentrate on the rest of this season right now. I owe it to the players," Foster said today. "I'm not going to jump up and make a decision just because we've lost four games in a row, one way or the other."

Because Foster is so popular here there are many working behind the scenes to try and convince him to stay. Lately, as the rumors have grown stronger, he has been flooded with mail and phone calls from people urging him to remain.

"There may be a few idiots out there who don't realize what Bill Foster's meant to Duke." said one prominent alumnus. "But I think most people realize that there aren't five coaches in the country who could have come into this situation six years ago and done what he did.

'So we're not No. 1 right now. We're still pretty damn good. I don't want to see anyone else coaching here, not now, or ever."

That is the clear consensus here, from University President Terry Sanford on down.

"If he leaves," said Art Chansky, sports editor of the Durham Morning Herald, who has watched the program go from the basement to the penthouse under Foster, "Duke has nothing left. Its whole athletic program is down the tubes. He's the only winner they have over there."

When Maryland takes the court Saturday, it will only be enemy No. 2. To Duke basketball fans, enemy No. 1 is South Carolina.

The Terps' Greg Manning, who has a sprained ankle, said he expects to play.

In other Saturday games, George Washington hosts Penn State, 8 p.m.; American is at Drexel, 8 p.m.; North Carolina A&T visits Howard, 8 p.m.; George Mason travels to Stetson, 8 p.m.; Detroit is at Georgetown, 8 p.m.; Navy plays host to Manhattan, 3 p.m.; Virginia is at North Carolina, 7 p.m.; Bowie State plays at Southeastern, 8 p.m., and Gallaudet is at Hagerstown.