Maryland's basketball program suffered a devastating loss late Saturday night because Ralph Sampsom of Virginia, Dominique Wilkins of Georgia and Sam Bowie of Kentucky decided not to turn pro this year.

Those three decisions gave Buck Williams the leverage he needed to get two NBA teams to guarantee they would pay him about $1.5 million over the next four years as one of the first three players chose in the June 9 NBA draft.

Those guarantees, from the Detroit Pistons and the New Jersey Nets, finally pushed the 6-foot-8 junior into deciding to pass up his final season at Maryland. Iornically, Williams will be selected in the draft ahead of his more highly publicized teammate, Albert King, expected to be chosen by the Chicago Bulls with the fourth or fifth pick in the draft.

"If Sampson and Wilkins had gone, it probably would have pushed me lower in the draft and I don't think I would have gone," Williams said yesterday. "I really never figured I would be that highly thought of by the NBA. But I'm glas I was."

Lefty Drisell isn't. The Maryland coach had been counting on Williams to be the centerpiece of his team next season. Now, for the first time in his 25 years as a basketball coach, Driesell will start a season with no one on his team who averaged in double figures the previous season.

Williams, who averaged 16.5 points and 11.8 rebounds last season, is one of four double-figure scorers leaving the program. The other three are seniors King, Ernest Graham and Greg Manning.

Driesell, who could barely speak moments after learning the news Saturday night, was his old self yesterday, vowing that the Terps would overcome the loss of Williams.

"We're losing a guy I was counting on for 20 points and 12 or 13 rebounds a game so that hurts, naturally," Driesell said. "But who knows, Buck might have gotten hurt in the first game anyway and we would have been without him then.

"I've dealt with adversity before and I'll deal with it agan. We'll just have to go out and recruit some top players who will get us Buck's points and rebounds or some of the guys coming back will have to do it. I thought with Buck back we'd be a mighty tough club next year. I still think without him we'll be tough.

Brave words from a man whose leading returning scorers are Charles Pittman and Reggie Jackson, both of whom averaged fewer than five points a game last season. If the season began tomorrow, Driesell probably would go with a lineup of Jackson or Steve Rivers at point guard, incoming freshman Jeff yadkins at wing gaurd, another freshman, Adrian Branch, at small forward, Pittman at power forward and Taylor Baldwin at center. That is not a lineup that will strike fear into ACC hearts.

Driesell still is recruiting 7-foot-3 Uwe Blab, 6-10 Bobby Lee Hurt from Alabama and several others. "I'm gonna go out and recruit anyone and everyone who is available, anywhere," Driesell said yesterday. "We got the spot now. I'll use that. I'll recruit Blab, Hurt, Anthony Jones, Andre Hawkins, Sylvester Charles, anyone who hasn't signed. Watch me."

Each of those players is considered close to signing with another school, but Driesell has pulled rabbits out of hats in the past.

North Carolina will enter the season as the favorite for the national championship. Virginia, with Sampson, will be solid, not great. Then, there is a dropoff. Up until Saturday, the Terps probably would have been a solid pick for third place in the league, 20 wins (they play three extra games in the Alaskan shootout) and an NCAA bid. Now, they are back in the pack.

"We just went from 21 wins and second or third in the league to 15 wins and sixth place," said one Maryland official. "Buck meant six or seven wins and he was important to recruiting this year and next. It's awful, just awful."

Williams, who quietly became the Terps' leader during a trying 21-10 season last winter, said he felt badly about leaving his teammates behind. "I know I'll miss hearing those 14,500 going wild for us in Cole Field House," he said. "And I'll miss the guys and the school. But Coach won before I got here and I'm sure he'll win after I'm gone."

What sold Williams to the NBA as much as his physical talent was his attitude. "I think character was very important to the NBA people," said David Falk, the attorney who negotiated the deal for Williams. "Buck is a special case, not just an undergraduate looking for money. He was very serious and determined about the whole thing. He wasn't going to make a panicked or a rash decision."

Williams will play in Dallas, Detroit or New Jersey next season, mnost likely Dallas because Coach Dick Motta would love to have him. If Dallas wins the coin flip from Detroit, it may make him the No. 1 pick inthe draft. If Detroit wins the flip and chooses Isiah Thomas, the Mavericks are likely to take Williams. If they don't, Detroit or New Jersey will.

"It really doesn't matter that much, I like all three organizations," Williams said. "But I played for Coach (Larry) Brown (of the Nets) on the Olympic team and I really like him. It would kind of be like a homecoming to go to New Jersey."

Wherever he plays next season it will not be Cole Field House. Without trying, Sampson, Wilkins and Bowie have dealt Driesell a harsh blow.

"I have to look on the bright side of this," Driesell said. "I think it's a compliment to our program that Buck would be able to get that kind of contract and be thought of that highly after just three years.

"I don't know exactly what I want to say about the whole thing yet," Driesell said. "It's all to sudden. I didn't think it would happen. Now it has. I don't think it's really sunk in yet."