This Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament became memorable before it was half complete, because we welcomed a familiar figure back to the fold, a personality decidedly on the decline lately and thought by some to be fading out of sight.

Good to have you here again, Lefty Driesell.

Until Thursday night, until he dressed his turtles in new shells and then wanted desperately to stop a press conference after exactly 17.5 seconds, many of us had been concerned that one of the great characters of sport was losing his bite.

Gradually but noticeably, our favorite Lefthander seemed to be mellowing as he approached 50. Gone was the occasional snarl, the impulsive bit of flair that did not always work but always made him distinctive and compelling. This is the coach, after all, who while at Davidson would tell his manager to scan unfamiliar gyms "to see if there's any superstitious-looking people hanging around."

His uniform trick is not new for Driesell. But less imaginative than a stunt he pulled during one of his early years at Maryland. For the first game of that ACC tournament, Driesell actually had his players switch uniforms. The center wore the guard's jersey, the forward the center's, and so on.

Presumably, the opponent was supposed be so bedazzled that all manner of strange matchups in Maryland's favor would result. Unfortunately, an early-'70s Terrapin in different duds still was slow and highly beatable.

Lately, Lefty had been much less imaginative. And much more tolerant. We faithful followers worried, sensing an irreversable trend toward ordinariness.

The Lefthander was becoming Carl Tacy, who might be a wonderful tactician but who could not attract a crowd unless he was coaching the Playboy bunnies. You might want Tacy to coach your son; your would go miles and miles out of your way to wath the Lefthander.

Or you would before he went soft. Or matured. Or got better players. Nobody is certain what caused this mellow period. Perhaps he finally had come to realize there is a difference between being a great coach and being a great winner -- and that the latter makes men rich and famous. Great coaches know every obscure defense ever devised, how to control tempo and the precise moment to call time. Yet most of them could coach time three-piece suits off and still lose to the athletic winners, because the winningest men nearly always have the best players.

So maybe Driesell had accepted the fact that winning was all that matters, that his numbers were so exceptional historians would treat him much kinder than those of us who crowed at him annually for rarely beating Dean Smith or never making the NCAA final four with arguably the best basketball job in America.

No way.

This has been a trying time for Driesell.No coach at any school during any season has been battered harder or from as many directions. He can rarely read a newspaper that does not have something critical.

The Driesell of a few years ago might have let most of it silently slip by, with little beyond an occasional tirade at a writer. The last few weeks he has sassed everybody. Publicly. Passionately. He actually has tried to phone every one of the fans whose critical letters were printed in the papers.

We are happy. The Lefthander is well again. The latest signs were just before and just after the Duke game Thursday. The idea for the new uniforms was better than the design -- and when the same players inside them nearly folded against an inferior team he was his special self more.

One of Driesell's charms has been that his emotions were nearly as obvious as his baldness. Where most coaches might be outwardly polite but seething inside, waiting for a chance for subtle revenge at their critics, Driesell rants and raves -- and then quickly forgets.

After the Duke game, he roared now and then. At his postgame press conference, he saw a sea of snipers before him and decided he could best get back at them by denying what they needed at the moment -- his time. And that of his players.

He was abrupt after a brief statement, and shooed his players out of Capital Centre as fast as possible. Maryland could beat the press, if not a press. It was an inconvenience, irritating at the time. But refreshingly in character. Driesell is not going to take this flogging peaceably after all. We half expected him to show up for the Virginia game last night wearing a blazer lettered from the top of his back to the waist:

"I CAN COACH."

"I CAN COACH."

"I CAN COACH."

Last night, that was obvious from the eighth minute. In perhaps the most satisfying performance of his 26-year coaching life, given what has happened this season and the night before, he gave us a clinic. Against the University of Ralph, he dared hold the ball with Albert King and Ernest Graham on the bench in foul trouble and won.

Gloriously.

Then the Lefthander had some fun. He put on his casual, this-ain't-special face for the press and was sly about his gloating.

"Do I look all fired up?" he replied to a question about his mood, his chin being supported by his left arm, as though he might drift off to sleep otherwise. Ho, hum. Another blowout of America's fourth-ranked team.

The Lefthander's nerves must have been on the greatest fast break of his career, or certainly since the day he signed Moses Malone. Came the question he had been anticipating -- and he hit it out of the park.

What were you thinking when King had to leave the game early with three fouls?

"I'm so dumb, nothin' goes through my head. Don't you read the papers? Nothin' goes through my head. I can't hardly keep up with the score."

He wasn't finished.

"All I know is that Maryland wasn't crap 'fore I got here and Davidson wasn't crap 'fore I got there. And they ain't been crap since I left. And Maryland better watch out. I just might leave some day -- and when I do they probably gonna be in big trouble, 'cause they didn't have no one who won like I have since 1800. They'll never be able to find somebody who can do what I done, who can do what I do."