Maryland starting forward Ernest Graham strained the outside ligaments in his right ankle during practice Wednesday and is doubtful for tonight's Atlantic Coast Conference opener against North Carolina State, 9 o'clock at Cole Field House (WJLA-TV-7).

Graham, averaging 15 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, twisted the ankle against Louisville last week and reinjured it Wednesday. A team physician decided yesterday that the injury was severe enough to possibly keep Graham out of the lineup, a team spokesman said.

"It's a wait-and-see how well he runs. If Ernest is not ready, Charles Pittman will start in his place."

The ninth-ranked Terrapins have lost only once, in their last game to previously winless, but potent, Louisville.

"I feel a little like the Christian being led into the area," said State's Jim Valvano, the former Iona coach making his ACC debut with a flu-weakened team. "A lot of prestige is on the line for them. Maryland will be an angry team tonight."

State (5-1) is a bona fide threat to win the conference, despite losing Clyde Austin and all-ACC forward Hawkeye Whitney. Valvano's only loss in his first season on Tobacco Road came in the Big Four Tournament two weeks ago, to Wake Forest by 30 points.

"This may be my first conference game officially, but I've already lost to one ACC team by four touchdowns," Valvano said. "We shot 63 percent the first half, but Wake shot 70. The 30-point margin wasn't really indicative, though, because at the end they were getting excited and we were packing up the balls trying to get out of town."

The Wolfpack is winning with four Washington-area regulars. The leading scorer is 6-foot-11 sophomore Thurl Bailey, from Bladensburg High, averaging 14.8 points. With Bailey, guards Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg from De Matha, swingman Kenny Matthews from Dunbar, forward Art Jones and seven-foot Craig Watts, Vavano has six possible starters.

"Thurl is going to be a great basketball player. That's a fact. It's imprinted in my mind. Stardom is not very far away for him."

Valvano doesn't believe that his homecoming players will be overexcited. "A lot of coaches believe in getting up for one big game or another," Valvano said, "I believe in a nice, even keel -- up -- for all 27 games. If they've been doing what I've wanted thus far, they won't be able to get any higher."

Valvano says Maryland is as good as predicted in the preseason. "They feel they have a lot to prove after having lost to Louisville last week, and I don't want to rile them.

"You'd have to be crazy to think Maryland was overrated because they lost to Louisville last week. The Cardinals were sensational. The Boston Celtics couldn't have beaten Louisville last Saturday."

Driesell said he, too, thought the defending national champion Cardinals played exceptionally well. "They would've beaten the 76ers last Saturday," he said, apparently reading from a similar script.

Maryland has been preparing this week for a quicker, fast-breaking Wolfpack team than they knew when Norm Sloane coached State. "These guys jack the ball up the court under Valvano," Driesell said.

"We might have been overconcerned about the opposition's tactics last week," Driesell said. "We have to make sure we do our stuff against State and worry less about what they do."

But Driesell must be concerned about the Wolfpack exploiting his only glaring weakness: a lack of bulk up front. "Buck Williams (6-foot-8) is a tiny center," he said, "and Albert (King) and Ernest are little, skinny guys." Louisville destroyed the Terps on the boards last week.

Both coaches said their teams had terrible practices during the middle of this week. "Probably because of exams," Driesell said.

Driesell said Thursday that the slender, 6-6 Graham had been practicing a lot this week at the second guard position and might be moved if State's tall lineup dominated his team in rebounding. The coach already was planning for Pittman to play at Graham's vacated forward position. Backup center Taylor Baldwin, suffering from a knee injury, is reportedly almost ready to play.