One month ago, shortly before his team clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship, Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell was asked who should be ACC coach of the year.

"I don't know," Driesell said with a straight face. "I think they should give it to Dean (Smith). I mean, they give it to him every year, don't they? They might as well give it to him again this year, too."

Even though the remark drew laughs, it clearly wasn't funny to Driesell. At 47, he will be seeking his 400th win as a college head coach Friday night in the NCAA East Regional semifinals against Georgetown in Philadelphia.

Yet, some people will say he can't coach. That hurts.

"Coaching is overrated anyway," Driesell said recently, sipping a cup of coffee early one morning in his spacious office. "You win because you have the best players. Dean, wins because he gets great players. They beat us nine in a row before this year. Well, they had better players, that was all. There wasn't any secret to what Dean was doing. They were just better."

Driesell will not say so, but this has been a season of vindication for him.

It seemed with his team picked for sixth in the ACC and rumors running rampant that he would leave Maryland at the end of the season for SMU. Early in December there was an 83-71 loss to Georgetown (without Buck Williams) a game in which Hoya Coach John Thompson cursed at Driesell, who refused to shake Thompson's hand after the game.

Three months later, Driesell team (23-6) is ranked eighth in the country; he has been named (yesterday) ACC coach of the year and Friday he gets another shot at Thompson.

The Terrapins have been beautifully coached by Driesell and his three assistants. But even that fact has caused Driesell problems. Earlier this season he blew up at a reporter who credited his assistant, John Kochan, with helping Driesell on the bench during games.

"No one runs my basketball team but me," Driesell said, raising his voice to make his point. "You watch us practice. I do all the talking, I'm in charge. I hire my assistants to teach them my system, not for them to teach me anything. I'm not saying I can't learn from them, but I'm in charge; they know that."

Clearly, though, Driesell listens to Kochan and Tom Abatemarco on the bench. During timeouts he often can be seen leaning down to hear them before he steps into the huddle to talk to the team.

During the Wake Forest game, when Maryland grabbed a one-point lead, Driesell called time and the Terps ran a set play. They scored.

Does that mean Kochan was running the team?" "It means I'm willing to listen to advice," Driesell said. "I like to think that I improve as a coach every year. One way you improve is to realize that you're human, that other people can help you."

This is different Driesell from the one of past years. Much of the bluster is gone. He can still crack up a press conference with his often-outlandish sense of humor.

But he just as apt to start talking about religion. Frequently this year, he has answered the question, what is the secret of your success? by answering, "I guess the good Lord has been looking over us."

Driesell is unlikely to leave coaching in the near future. But the thought has crossed his mind. "I never thought I would coach past 40," he said. "When I was at Davidson, if they had offered me the job as athletic director, I would never have left there. I never would have gotten into any of this ACC stuff.

"When the day comes that I think I can't get the most out of my players, I'll quit. I have no desire to coach anyplace else. Who knows, if we win the NCAA title this year I might just quit then. Go out a winner, you know?"

Driesell won't quit after this season, regardless of the outcome. With his first eight players back next season and the school apparently on the way to a good recruiting year, the Terps figure to be top 10 material.

Driesell says he wants one more thing out of this exhilarating season: the national championship. But, according to one Maryland insider, he also wants very much to defeat John Thompson. "Lefty doesn't forget things. He remembers Thompson cursing him out. He wants to whip him. He wants to whip him while everyone in the country is watching."

Driesell knows his team will be sky high Friday without him saying a word. He doesn't want to say anything now that will incite Georgetown. "What happened last game, has nothing to do with this game," he said, when the Thompson incident came up. "I don't care who we're playing. We're in the last 16, that's what counts. No one in the country picked us to be here and here we are."

But Driesell won't talk about vindication. There is a reason for that: he never felt a need to be vindicated. He feels his record should speak for itself.

But it doesn't. Because of his past bluster Driesell must keep winning to keep the wolves off his back. If Georgetown wins Friday someone undoubtly will write that Thompson outcoached Driesell.

After 20 years and 399 victories he still must prove himself each time he steps on to the court.

That is pressure. And that is why he isn't going to make this confrontation with Thompson any bigger than it already is.

"I just want to win the game," he said. "It'll be Maryland against Georgetown, not Driesell against Thompson."