Lefty Driesell fidgeted. He pulled at his socks. He looked at his watch for the 30th time in 30 seconds. "What time is it?" he said. "This thing must be slow. It can't be just 20 to 3."

It was just 20 to 3. Driesel was chomping at the bit. At 3 p.m. he could begin his Maryland basketball team's first practice of the season.

"I haven't slept the last two mights," Driesell said. "I woke up at four this morning wondering if all the baskets in the gym were the right height. I'm so ready it's unbelievable."

Finally, it was 3 p.m. Albert King, having seen the look in his coach's eyes all week, moaned, "You know where I'll be three hours every day from now on. At least three hours every day."

Oct. 15 had finally arrived. It was time to stop playing basketball and begin working at basketball.

Every year, moments before the start of the NCAA championship game, the public address announcer in the arena where the game is being played says simply, "On Oct. 15, 270 teams began practicing, working toward this night. Now, two are left."

Yesterday, in gyms all over the country, coaches got the fix they had needed since last April. Orders were given, drills were run, mistakes were made -- and corrected.

South Carolina Coach Bill Foster used to say that Oct. 15 was his favorite day of the year. "It's the only day I can wake up all tingly and excited," he said, "and know I'll go to bed still undefeated that night."

George Washington Coach Bob Tallent, starting his seventh season with perhaps his youngest team ever, likens Oct. 15 to the first day of school.

"Of course," he said, "I always liked school. I always got excited wondering what was new, what was going to happen that would be new and interesting. I feel that way especially this year because it's probably going to be my biggest challenge as a coach."

Georgetown Coach John Thompson starts his year by having his players run a mile. Each has a certain time he must not exceed. "They all made it," Thompson said, his tone indicating that failure would not have been accepted.

For Thompson, starting his ninth year at Georgetown, this is a different kind of Oct. 15. The two men primarily responsible for the Hoyas' 26-6 record a year ago, Craig Shelton and John Duren, are in the NBA.

American Coach Gary William found a way to get a quick start on learning his team's personality -- he had all his players over to dinner last week. Yesterday, after stopping long enough to buy his secretary a birthday card, Williams prepared to give his annual first speech.

"They're probably all sick of it by now," he said "But I just remind them that few guys get an opportunity to play college ball and they have four years to play. Then I tell them this is the first day of one of those years and they should be ready to go. Then, we go."

At Howard, Coach A.B. Williamson, whose team was 21-7 and MEAC champion a year ago, delivered no speeches. "We really didn't need any," Williamson said. "Our players know that we have the chance to go to the NCAA tournament this year if we just pick up where we left off last year.

"There's no politics involved anymore (the MEAC has an automatic bid this year), and that makes this year different for us. It's exciting to just have to worry about basketball." y

Joe Harrington, starting his rookie year as George Mason coach, found this Oct. 15, his second as a head coach, a revelation. "I really expected a lot of butterflies," he said. "Last year, my first day (at Hofstra) I was real nervous. But now, I really feel like I know what I'm doing.

"I don't have the experience of a Driesell or anything, but I feel a lot more comfortable. I think I know what we need to do here to get better and I'm anxious to get it started." k

The coach who got off to the quickest start was UDC's Wil Jones, who had his players running the mile at 12:01 a.m., then ran them through a three-hour practice later in the day. "Last year I was going crazy," any players. Now I've got some and I'm really ready."

The player who has Jones most excited is another Jones, 6-foot-10 Earl Jones.

For Catholic's Jack Kvancz, yesterday's beginning was also an ending. This will be Catholic's last year in Division I. Knvancz helped several of his top players transfer after the school's decision last spring to drop to Division III next year. He faces a long final season.

"I'm excited about getting out there and finding out what we have," Kvancz said. "But how I feel before practice isn't nearly as important as how I feel after practice. Then, I'll know a lot more."

And so, at about 3 p.m. yesterday, they all charged toward the court, ready to go. "We're all excited now," Thompson said. "But a week from now when we all see how much work we have to do we'll all start wishing Oct. 15 was still a month away."