It's a bittersweet position for Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

He can see the promise and potential of six young players who could soon lead Duke back to a place among the elite in college basketball. But there is also the present frustration of watching those neophytes learn by losing.

After Duke suffered through its worst season ever last year, Krzyzewski recruited more good high school players than probably any other coach in the nation. Expectations here were outrageously high. They still are.

Four of those six freshmen are starting and Duke is 6-6 coming into tonight's 8 o'clock game at Maryland, including losses to Colorado, California and Wagner. Duke is one of the few major college teams in the nation--perhaps the only one--which starts four freshmen.

"I don't know where we will end up (in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings) this year," Krzyzewski said this week. "There's part of me that says, 'If we do everything right we could be a contender this year.' But there's another part that says, 'Don't you set the tone for unrealistic expectations.' There are already enough of those."

The expectations were unreasonable because whatever Duke does this year will depend on freshmen. And as former Marquette coach Al McGuire once said, "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores."

Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas--all starters--may be all-ACC in the coming years. Right now, they are experienced only in frustration.

"Last year, this time, I didn't even expect to be playing nearly this much," said Alarie, the 6-foot-8 center/forward from Scottsdale, Ariz. "I just didn't think I was that great a player. I didn't think I could come to a school like Duke and handle a chunk of scoring and rebounding against schools like North Carolina, Virginia or Maryland."

But he has to. There isn't anybody else.

"We depend on Mark for inside scoring and rebounding," Krzyzewski said. "But he's played a total of 12 games. Who does he depend on? There's no sense of stability, no established force to center around."

Dawkins, the all-Metropolitan guard from Mackin High in Washington, D.C., is leading the team in scoring with 17 points per game on 54 percent shooting.

"The growing pain," Dawkins said, "is losing.

"Really, the hardest thing for the four of us (freshmen starters) is to sustain the mental concentration to play tough for 40 minutes. We only played 32 minutes maximum in high school. So we always seem to have eight- to 10-minute lapses."

And those lapses, Alarie said, "is when teams like Louisville and Virginia score 12 or 14 straight points to pull away from us."

Duke, with such inexperience, isn't expected to beat the Virginias and Louisvilles. Not yet. But the young Devils are expected to beat teams like Wagner, which defeated Duke here three games ago.

"Wagner played very well and we played very bad," Krzyzewski said. "Still, we were embarrassed. We had been dodging bullets, and you could tell something like that would happen.

"We want to be great right away. But they knew when they signed what was going to happen. You don't go from 10-17 to 22-4 overnight. When you're ranked No. 1 in anything," Krzyzewski said of the hype over his recruiting class, "you're getting more credit than you deserve. You don't have an outstanding program off one good recruiting year.

"Three classes, I think, gives you a blend of old and new. The competition, the experience and the enthusiasm does that. This is a good group of freshmen."

Dawkins, 6-2, is the potentially explosive wing guard. The Rocket. Good shooter, good ballhandler, smart. Alarie, 6-8, 215 pounds, is the potentially big-time power forward with the nice combination of power and grace.

David Henderson, a 6-5 swingman from Manson, N.C., was a smoothie of unknown potential, until discovered by Krzyzewski. And Bilas, 6-8, 215 pounds from Rolling Hills, Calif., is a potential inside force around the basket.

The other two freshmen are 6-8 Bill Jackman, from Grant, Neb., and Weldon Williams, a 6-6 forward from suburban Chicago. The only nonfreshman starting is Tom Emma, a 6-2 senior guard.

"We're not phasing the upperclassmen out, we're phasing them into a new system," said Krzyzewski. "They've taken it well."

And Duke has gotten more than a decent start on next year, having already gotten verbal commitments from Tommy Amaker, a 6-foot point guard from Fairfax, Va., and 7-foot-2 Martin Nessley, from Columbus, Ohio.

"I want to get to the point where we contend (for ACC title and NCAA berth) every year," Krzyzewski said. "We have to keep replenishing the old pantry. I don't think we're rebuilding anymore. We've got some guys here, so now we're developing."

And for now, the Duke freshmen will develop, even if they lose more than win.

"After every loss, you feel as if that's the last one of the season," Dawkins said. "I figure these six losses are the only ones we'll have."