Over the last seven or eight years, the surest way to raise Lefty Driesell's temperature to about 617 degrees has been to say, "Wow, Lefty, this looks like your greatest team ever. The Bullets oughta have such talent."

And while everyone believed Little Orphan Annie could coach Maryland to the ACC championship and into the final four with the wonderful players Lefty recruited, everyone wept out of compassion for poor little Georgetown and its coach, John Thompson.

Everybody said, "Too bad, John. With a center, you could play with anybody. If you win 15 with this bunch, you oughta be coach of the century."

Things change.

Suddenly, Lefty's the underdog.

And Big John is on the spot.

Maryland, which is 3-0 and will host George Mason tonight at 8, has no veterans. Practically everybody who ever scored a point for Lefty is gone. Yes, it is poor little Maryland now. Light a candle for Lefty. Mail him a Care package of Dean Smith playbooks and enroll him in the Bobby Knight School of Charm.

Meanwhile, it's Georgetown's turn in the barrel of great expectations. With five starters back from last year's NCAA team, John Thompson still recruited three freshmen who could play for anybody. One is 7 feet tall and has been mentioned in the same sentence with Bill Russell. So everybody knows Bo Derek could draw the Xs and Os to coach the Hoyas to the Big East championship.

This reversal of roles doesn't bother either Driesell or Thompson, but Lefty admits he's been rich and he's been poor -- and rich is better.

"If I think we're good, I say we're good," Driesell said yesterday. "I've had a little bit of success talking like I have. I've always tried to be honest. This year, to be honest, we don't have any veteran players. Our kids are going to have to prove themselves. I haven't had a team without any veterans like this since my first year here."

Lefty's first year, Maryland had a 13-13 record.

Two years later, with veterans, Lefty was 27-5 -- the first of his eight 20-win seasons at Maryland.

"I'm having a lot of fun coaching this bunch," he said. "They're all young players, but they're working hard and they're playing together."

Is he glad to be poor little Maryland for a relaxing change?

"Nope," Lefty said. "I like to have expectations."

Anyway, Lefty pointed out, expectations haven't always been high for his teams.

"Two years ago, nobody picked us in the top 40. And we finished in the top eight."

Which prompted everybody the next year to pick Maryland in the top five.

Then the Terrapins were only 21-10, barely a break-even team in the ACC.

"I told everybody our deficiencies," Lefty said. "We had Buck Williams at center and he's really a power forward. And we had two small forwards. So I said we'd get hurt by teams with good big men inside."

Without any veterans, without any 7-foot freshmen, Maryland yet is undefeated in this early part of the season. This is the kind of work for which John Thompson, in other years, gained a reputation as a brilliant coach making the best of a bad situation.

So, Lefty can coach. But he can't recruit.

As for Thompson, he can recruit. But his team, which will play San Diego State at 1:30 today at Capital Centre, lost two of its first three games this season. Maybe he should sneak a peek at Lefty's playbook.

Chuckle, chuckle. Just kidding with those last two paragraphs. We typists like to deal in what the dictionary calls irony. That's when something seems to be something it isn't. And right now, at this early stage of the college basketball season, it's fun to see Maryland-as-Georgetown and Georgetown-as-Maryland.

For instance, had Lefty lost two of his first three games with the nation's best recruiting crop, including a 7-footer, you could have put your head out the car window and heard, "Sure, he can recruit, but he couldn't coach a fish to swim. Get rid of the bum."

Had Thompson been undefeated with a star-less team, senators would have entered the box scores in the Congressional Record.

Even with two defeats already in a season that began with Georgetown ranked No. 1 in one survey, Thompson isn't concerned by the burden of expectations.

"We have worked hard to get where we are, wherever that is," John Thompson said. "I wouldn't trade positions with anybody. It didn't happen by accident, and it didn't happen overnight. But now we are at a new level of high expectations, and we'll learn to deal with it just like North Carolina and Kentucky and Indiana have learned to deal with it."

Thompson sees this season as another step up for Georgetown.

"It's been a long, hard struggle," he said. "When we had the good teams four and five years ago, it supposedly was a 'new era.' Everybody said, 'This is it, this is it.' Then we leveled off there. Now we are at this new level, and we have to learn to cope with the expectations."

As Driesell came to love the burden of potential, so has Thompson. And if the gap between their teams seems wide now, I'd guess it will grow narrower as this season moves on. I figure Maryland will be as good as all but two or three teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Lefty can, in fact, coach. You don't win 20 games a year for 20 years any other way.

And Georgetown, by mid-February, will be able to play with anybody anywhere because in Thompson the Hoyas have a coach who, like Knight and Smith, is a ruthlessly competitive teacher and strategist whose performance over a decade has met every test.