Shortly before he kissed his mother goodbye at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport nearly two years ago, Ben Coleman thought again about the reputation an athlete often gets when he switches schools.

Head case, troublemaker, not coachable, bad attitude . . .

"I thought about the rap that seems to follow transfers," Coleman said. "And then I just hoped Coach (Lefty) Driesell would see something in me the other coaches didn't see."

So Coleman left the University of Minnesota for Maryland. After sitting out the required year, he is a success story.

The latest Atlantic Coast Conference statistics show Coleman second (behind Ralph Sampson) in field goal shooting at 58 percent, third in rebounding at 8.2 per game and eighth in scoring at 15.5. His improvement is at the heart of Maryland's seven-game winning streak going into tonight's game at 7 against Wake Forest in Greensboro, N.C.

As Driesell said this week, "I've really stayed away from transfers. Ben, I think, is the first transfer I've ever coached. But he's come here and worked hard. He's done well academically. And he's done just what we've asked him on the court. I didn't know what to expect going into the season. But now, I know we'd be in trouble if it wasn't for Ben Coleman."

All this Coleman has accomplished while learning a new position--center.

At Minnesota, he was a power forward and didn't play much in two years. "I just couldn't fit in their system they way they wanted me to," Coleman said yesterday. "I couldn't sit on the bench and wait to be called upon."

Driesell, desperate for a center and hearing a big body was resting on the Minnesota bench, asked one of the Minnesota assistants about Coleman.

"I'd never seen him play," Driesell said, "but we needed a big guy so bad that I was delighted to get him. Then, when I saw him, I was happy."

At times last year, Coleman would practice in the dark at Cole Field House when the team was on a road trip. During practices, he showed a flair for scoring, but there apparently was too much dribbling between the legs, too much outside jump shooting, too much small-forward thinking inside a 6-foot-9, 235-pound body.

Then, in the summer, Coleman had a talk with Buck Williams, the former Maryland center now in the NBA.

"Buck told me to work hard within 15 feet of the basket," Coleman said. "He said not to go out any further than that, that my job was to be a center, so be one. He said to play that role because that's what the team needed."

Driesell, seeing how closely Coleman listened to Williams, decided to use Williams' appeal even more. He had Coleman study film of Williams.

"I learned from studying Buck, not to do what you can't do," Coleman said.

What Coleman can do is enough. He's quick enough to get the inside position on almost any center in the ACC--he has beaten Sampson to the proper spots as often as not--and is strong enough to hold that position. Driesell has taught Coleman the jump hook (Williams' specialty), which he used to dominate North Carolina all-America Sam Perkins earlier this year. And his rebounding is strong.

His biggest problem has been the tendency to get into foul trouble; "not real tear-his-head-off fouls," Driesell said, "but those Mickey Mouse, reach-in, tap-on-the-wrist fouls." When Maryland lost to Duke by 19 points recently, Coleman got into early foul trouble and played only 12 minutes.

"It was very frustrating for me to learn the offense," Coleman said. "ACC games are different from the Big Ten in that you play looser. There's more man-to-man defense and your individual talent becomes a little more important. I really didn't expect to rank up there in those conference statistics. I knew I had to get a lot of bad stuff out of my game."

Despite scoring 27 points to lead Maryland's upset over UCLA and consistently good performances since the loss to Duke, Coleman's reputation has apparently not preceded him. But he could cause specific problems for Wake Forest, which doesn't have a true center.

"If people don't know who he is, fine," said Adrian Branch, the Maryland forward who has benefited offensively from Coleman's inside play. "I think they know after the game."