The way Adrian Branch walked onto the court before his first game at Cole Field House was a hint that this would not be an ordinary freshman.

Branch didn't just walk, he sauntered, hands on hips, looking up at the crowd to see who was watching him. One would have thought he was a senior who had scored 2,000 points and played in a couple NCAA tournaments. He seemed that confident.

"Adrian Branch and John Lucas are the most confident freshmen I've ever coached," Maryland's Lefty Driesell said recently. "Most freshmen are at least a little tenative, a little nervous. Not Adrian. He thinks he's supposed to make every shot he takes."

Last Saturday, after Branch had overcome then-top-ranked Virginia, by scoring 29 points, he was asked about the jump shot he took over 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson at the start the second half.

"Weren't you intimidated or worried just a little?"

"Not at all," Branch replied. "It was fun."

Everything is fun to the 6-8 forward from De Matha whose smile is no less infectious than Sugar Ray Leonard's. Teammates call him happy-go-lucky.

It is hard to find a freshman anywhere who has been more valuable to his team. Georgetown won 20 games last year without Patrick Ewing. North Carolina would have been very good without the considerable contributions of Michael Jordan. But Branch is Maryland's primary weapon. There are no Eric Floyds or James Worthys playing with him.

Before the season, Driesell surprised those at a press conference in Greensboro, N.C., by saying that if Branch stays at Maryland four years, he'll become the school's all-time leading scorer and a first-team all-America.

Only 26 games into his college career, it's a little early to think of Branch as reaching those heights, but he does lead his team in scoring with 15.2 points a game, a point more than Lucas averaged as a freshman nine seasons ago. The last five games, Branch has produced 40 percent of Maryland's points.

"He's got some guts for a freshman," Wake Forest player Mike Helms said. "He knows he can score and that confidence will only make him better."

"I'm not at all surprised about the way Adrian has played this season," said Terrapin center Charles Pittman. "I played with him in summer league and he was doing the same thing against the veteran college guys and some professionals."

Branch's style is unique. The left-hander is not a shooter, but he is a scorer. Likes to drive toward the basket. He's the weakest weight-lifter on the team. But his skinny body allows him to wiggle and shimmy into places most forwards would not fit.

And once Branch gets into the lane, a shot goes up: super-scoops or running one-handers after a double pump. "He can throw it up from under his arm, do 360 degree dunks, anything you can imagine," Driesell said.

Branch also leads the Terrapins in turnovers, with twice as many, 78, as assists. But the turnovers have decreased recently, while Branch's scoring, rebounding and ball handling responsibilities have increased.

"My freshman year has gone about like I expected," Branch said, asked to assess his performance. "I've had to make some adjustments to the double-post offense and the slower game. I wasn't naive about the adjustment from high school to college basketball."

Driesell is not naive, either. He knows that Branch's reputation has preceded the team to Greensboro Coliseum, where Maryland will play North Carolina State at 2 p.m. Friday in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Driesell has spent much time in practice this week making sure there is a plan B if State decides to double-team Branch. "It bothers me a little that we've had to depend on him so much," the coach said. "But I've got a horse in Adrian. And if someone's gonna beat us, they gotta figure out how to stop Adrian."

In preparation for Friday's game, Driesell has been emphasizing other scorers, and playing various defenses against Branch.

In Tuesday afternoon's scrimmage, after a box-and-one defense forced him to work extremely hard for shots, Branch came over for a drink of water and said to a visitor, "Can you believe they're playing a box-and-one against me?"

That's what you're going to see from North Carolina State, was the reply.

"Then I'll be ready for that, too," Branch said.