From the day Lefty Driesell arrived at the University of Maryland in 1969, the basketball program showed consistent, and often remarkable, improvement. While there were no national championships, there were terrific teams, great players, recruiting coups, all of which generated tremendous interest.

Before the 1980-81 season, Sporting News had ranked the Terrapins No. 1 in the country. It all seemed so promising to Driesell and Maryland; so close to a national title.

Which is why last year's 21-10 record was such a disappointment to so many Terrapin fans. Then last spring came the defection of Buck Williams to the New Jersey Nets, passing up his final year at College Park. And the departures of Albert King, Ernest Graham and Greg Manning.

In the span of 13 months, Maryland basketball has gone from the nation's elite to an also-ran in search of an identity--and worst of all, a two-time victim of woebegone Georgia Tech.

There is little excitement surrounding the 11-7 Terrapins, who have lost five of seven Atlantic Coast Conference games and play 13th-ranked Wake Forest at Cole Field House tonight at 8 o'clock.

There are plenty of seats available for the Wake game; only one home game, in fact, has been sold out. The players no longer are celebrities.

"Last year, after we had won the ACC regular-season championship the previous year, people would come up to you every day and ask about the next game or just want to talk about the season," senior center Taylor Baldwin said. "But now, they almost ignore us.

"You can sense that they aren't behind us as much as they were before. You hear the hecklers more . . . you try not to think about it and just concentrate on playing better basketball so things can be like they used to be."

Baldwin and the other Terrapins are careful in choosing their words. They do not want to give the impression they think this is an off year.

Four starters from last season's team were drafted by the NBA, including Williams. Rare is the press conference or postgame interview at which Driesell doesn't say: "If we had Buck . . . if we had Buck."

Charles Pittman, who replaced Williams, said yesterday that it is important Maryland win most of its remaining games and gain a postseason playoff bid, to show fans that Maryland basketball hasn't bottomed out.

"When you lose four superstars like we did, and one of them (Williams) unexpectedly, maybe it's natural for a little enthusiasm to die off. We don't have any superstars now. I try not to think about that stuff much, though. I don't compare what we're doing now with last year. That's a waste of time. Getting better is what I'm spending my time thinking about."

It could have been worse for Maryland, but a light early season schedule and tinkering by Driesell helped disguise some of the deficiencies.

"This season isn't a hopeless case," said Adrian Branch. He and fellow frosh Jeff Adkins are the team's most versatile offensive players.

"We still have a chance to do well," Branch continued. "I've got a standard of excellence and I sure haven't reached it yet. And I'm sure this program has a standard of excellence that we, as a team, haven't reached. But most people, even casual basketball fans, should be able to see we've improved since the start of the season."

The Terrapins, under Driesell's new, slower offense, had improved significantly, it seemed, until they lost to Georgia Tech by one point on Saturday. The first time Maryland bowed to lowly Tech, the team was demoralized. "Everybody from the coaching staff to the players was down," Baldwin said. "We can't afford to let that happen again."

Tonight's game will tell what effect Saturday's loss has on team morale.

"It's going better than what some people think," said senior guard Dutch Morley. "Things started to improve with the North Carolina game. We lost, but we played well enough to the point where we wanted to come out and play again. We're finally getting a sense of team. If we can win (the next three home games) I'm hoping things can get back to normal."

The adjustment seems to have been more difficult for the four-year seniors--Morley, Baldwin and Reggie Jackson--than the others (Pittman, the other senior, transferred to College Park from junior college). Not only have they had to adjust to Driesell's drastically different offense, but they've had to adjust to Driesell's new rules.

"Coach is laying down a lot more discipline," Baldwin said. "Personality-wise, we all hate it. But we know it's good for the team. He's not putting up with the stuff that he put up with in past years."

Driesell's most publicized run-in this season has been with Jackson, who was suspended for one game for missing the newly imposed midnight curfew. Jackson, who was starting, has played little the last three weeks and refuses to talk specifically about his unfulfilled career at Maryland.

"This is probably the hardest time in Reggie's career," Driesell said last week. "He'll be on the bench until I need him. But if he lives to be 50 years old, like I have, he'll run up on much harder things in life. I hope he learns something from this experience."

Driesell has been rather mellow this season, except for the losses to Georgia Tech, which filled him with anger. He said on the first day of practice that this season wouldn't be like last, that he didn't know what to expect from such a largely inexperienced group of players.

With eight games left in the regular season, Driesell still approaches most games with uncertainty.

"You never know what young teams will do. We're young, and we're learning and, hopefully, we'll improve. Right not, that's what I'm asking them to do."