It has been 20 years since Lefty Driesell coached his first college basketball game as a nervous 28-year-old at Davidson College, but he still remembers it clearly.

"We were playing Wake Forest and they had one of the best teams in the country," Driesell said. "In fact, they finished third in the country that year. Davidson had never beaten them.

"I was all fired up, telling my team I had never lost an opener in junior high school or high school and didn't intend to lose one now. We went out and played super, unbelievable, and we won.

"I thought, 'Hey, this college coachin' is easy.' Our next game we lost to Catawba."

Tonight, Charles Grice Driesell begins his 21st year as a college coach, his 12th at Maryland. That first season at Davidson ended with a 9-14 record, but in the 19 years since Driesell has never coached a team with a losing record.

Tonight, when his Terrapins open this season against Navy at 8 in Cole Field House, Driesell will be looking for his 400th victory in the college ranks. In stark contrast, his counter part, Paul Evans, will be coaching his first game at the Naval Academy.

One year ago at this time, many in basketball were preparing Driesell's coaching obituary. After five consecutive 20-victory seasons, he had gone three years without winning that 20th game, appeared to have no center and was picked for sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Three months later the Terps easily had won the ACC regular season title and finished the season 24-7, ranked eighth in the nation.

But there still was a "but" at the end of those impressive statistics. What was a delightful season almost from beginning to end finished on a sour note: a loss in the NCAA round of 16 to Georgetown. That was the Terps' second loss of the season to the Hoyas, third over two years.

Unless they meet again in postseason play, the Terps will not have a chance to gain revenge this season. But they may accomplish a lot more.

Driesell has had three teams, since arriving at Maryland, that could legitimately be classified as superb: the 1973-74 team with Len Elmore and Tom McMillen as seniors, which began the season with a one-point loss at UCLA, then won 23 of 26 before ending the season with a 103-100, double-overtime loss to eventual national champion North Carolina State in what is considered on of the best college games ever played.

The 1974-75 team, led by John Lucas, Steve Sheppard and Brad Davis, may have been slightly better. It swept to the ACC regular-season championship, won all four games on Tobacco Road and went to the NCAA round of eight before losing to Louisville.

Finally, there was last year's team. With Albert King blossoming into the ACC player of the year, Buck Williams proving he could play center with anyone, even at 6 feet 8, and Ernest Graham and Greg Manning turning into stars, the Terps played together and they played defense.

And the best thing about them is that they're all back. That means Driesell might have his best team ever, a contender for the national championship.

Naturally, he is worried.

"We're not that big," he has been saying since June. "We've got to play real intense to rebound well. We're 6-8, 6-7, 6-6 up front and that isn't big these days.

"I been harping on them all preseason not to get cocky and overconfident because I'm worried people are telling them so much how good they are they might start believing it. We can't afford to do that, because in this conference you get cocky and you finish seventh."

Even though the nucleus of this team is the same, the Terps will look a bit different this season.

The same five will start, Reggie Jackson playing point guard. But, according to Driesell, Dutch Morley has played better than Jackson during preseason, especially running the offense, so Morley may see more and more time if that pattern continues. Jackson will start for now because Driesell does not change a winning combination.

The Terps will use their reserves more often this season than last when Morley and 6-10 backup center Taylor Baldwin were the only substitutes who played regularly. Junior college transfer Charles Pittman, a 6-8 junior, will play more as both he and the season progress.

Driesell has worked hard on two things in preseason: team defense and the half-court offense. Both improved considerably last year, but the Terps still were a team that flourished on the fast break and in transition and tended to sputter in a hard-nosed half-court game.

During the last six weeks Driesell has run a number of scrimmages with no fast breaking allowed in order to force his players to work on setting up, working the ball around and getting a good shot. The Terps had a tendency last year to throw a pass to King or Graham, then watch them shoot from outside.

The Terps must play Syracuse, Louisville and North Carolina State before December is out. It will be their toughest early schedule since 1973-74.

"That," said Driesell, "was poor scheduling."

Then, he laughed, something he is doing often these days. Twenty years and 399 victories into his coaching career, Lefty Driesell still gets "fired up" before every game.

But he's stopped worrying about Catawba.