Over the holidays, Lefty Driesell did not let his Maryland basketball team savor the upset of previously undefeated, third-ranked UCLA.

"That seems like a long time ago," said guard Adrian Branch, when reminded of the 80-79 double-overtime victory on Dec. 23.

Maryland (5-2), idle since that game, will return to competition against American University at 8 o'clock tonight in Cole Field House. In other games, George Mason (6-2) goes for the biggest victory in the school's short Division I history in a 7:30 game at Duke, and the University of the District of Columbia plays host to Hampton Institute at 8.

In yesteryear, Maryland would have considered AU a breather, a game to look past, for instance, to Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference opener against fourth-ranked Virginia.

"At this point, it's the biggest game in our season," said Branch, a sophomore who has been elected cocaptain of the Terrapins with senior Herman Veal. "It's the game we need to be nationally ranked. It can make or break our season. If we lose, people will say we slipped up and are inconsistent. So it's a very intense game for us."

Asked how much his team had improved since a 97-79 loss to Penn State in the season opener, Driesell said:

"A lot, (based on) the way we played against UCLA, as opposed to Penn State. But we've got to keep playing that way. They've got to learn to be up for everybody. They weren't up for Penn State, and they beat us badly.

" . . . If we play like we did against Penn State, we can't beat anybody; if we play like we did against UCLA, we can beat anybody."

But Driesell's current motivational techniques do not include building this team up. It's too raw and inconsistent for that, and the UCLA victory appears to have lifted confidence. Driesell likes this team being seen as an underdog. "We beat UCLA; they beat Georgetown. So you got the two giant-killers playing each other."

American, which hasn't beaten Maryland since the 1926-27 season, is coming off a 90-72 loss to Santa Clara in the Cable Car Classic final. It was the Eagles' worst loss since a 95-65 defeat by Maryland in the second game of the 1980-81 season. Since then, AU's record is 51-18, with two trips to the National Invitation Tournament.

The game appears to be a matchup of AU's intensity and quickness against Maryland's overwhelming advantage inside.

Driesell said he has decided to remain with Branch in the back court with Jeff Adkins. "It gives us more rebounding when Adrian plays guard," Driesell said.

In Durham, George Mason, in its third year under Coach Joe Harrington and fifth in Division I, can reach a new plateau in its growth by defeating Duke (4-4).

But the Patriots figure to be outmanned inside, though 6-5 forward Carlos Yates (25.8 points per game, 60 percent field-goal accuracy) and guard Andy Bolden (11.6 points) are standouts for the Patriots. Duke has had one of the nation's best recruiting years and its leading scorer is freshman guard Johnny Dawkins from Mackin High (17.5).