Everybody's been running his mouth (to use a Leftyism) about Maryland's victory over North Carolina. It wasn't five minutes after that surprise when the phone rang and a Midwest addict of college basketball on cable-TV said, "I won't believe Maryland won until I see it three more times on tape. I think the teams traded uniforms at halftime."

Confirming evidence of Maryland's excellence came from the Carolina coach, Dean Smith, who told a TV reporter, "The way Maryland played tonight, they could be, very much, national champions."

Lefty Driesell is as happy now as a man can get without having his ticket to heaven punched. Nothin' could be finer than to beat up Carolina.

Not that the Maryland coach would say so. Long way to go. Anything could happen. Might play Carolina twice more.

So cautious was Driesell that he would talk only obliquely about the confusing defenses, well-conceived and perfectly executed, he threw at Carolina. "We've been mixing up defenses for them," he said, "but I don't want to say what it is exactly. We look at peoples' zone offenses and their man-to-man offenses, then we switch up our defenses so they'll think we're in a zone and we're in man. Sometimes, it looks like a triangle-and-two, but then we might put a guy on three guys or sometimes only on one."

Got all that?

Anyway, you could tell yesterday, by the way Driesell furrowed his delicate brow and caused his peepers to go squinty, that the coach didn't much like Smith's compliment. These men have been at each other's throatlatch 32 times now (Smith's teams lead, 24-8). To say Driesell doubts Smith's sincerity is to say Ralph Sampson is kind of tall.

"A left-handed compliment, I would say," Driesell said. "Sure, if we played like we did the other night every game, we could be national champions. But that remains to be seen.

"We really play better without the 30-second clock and the three-point shot (neither rule applies in the NCAA tournament) than we do with them. If we can win some more games, we can be a contender.

"But I wouldn't pop right up now, running my mouth, and say we're odds-on favorites to win the national championship. I don't know if he (that's Smith) was saying that to make his own team look good or what."

Does it matter? Maybe Smith wanted to explain away the defeat as a this-night-only phenomenon. Or maybe he was loading a 500-pound monkey on Driesell's back. Or, here's a cynical possibility, maybe Smith was answering honestly.

Whatever the motive, the words are significant, because the thought of Maryland as national champion was laughable in December. Of 12 players, six were new. The six old hands could win only in slowdown games.

Penn State beat Maryland by 18 in the season opener. The fourth game was an eight-point home-court loss to St. Joseph's. Meaningless victories gave Maryland a 4-2 record going against UCLA, the nation's No. 1 team in December.

Maryland's 80-79 victory over UCLA was one more reminder that Driesell's teams are dangerous even when they seem mediocre. A victory over Notre Dame came later, and now Carolina, giving Driesell every right to crow, "Any season you beat those three, you're doing good."

Maryland has the legitimate strongman it lacked last year. Ben Coleman (6-feet-9, 225) averages 15.6 points and eight rebounds. Adrian Branch again leads the scorers at 18.4. Jeff Adkins' 10 points a game are secondary to his maturity in running the offense, and Driesell counts on solid performances from veteran front-liners Mark Fothergill and Herman Veal.

"We're playing together well right now," Driesell said. "We're playing good defense. We're small but we're rebounding hard, we're coming along. But I'm not going to get too excited until we win a few more games."

Here's why. Maryland's 19-point home-court loss to Virginia immediately preceded a one-point loss at Carolina that was followed immediately by a 19-point home-court loss to Duke. The Duke loss preceded a seven-game winning streak that ended with a 13-point loss at Wake just before the Carolina game.

It adds up to inconsistency. "Down at Wake, maybe we were a little fat and overconfident. Maybe it was part my fault. I showed the team film of William and Mary beating Wake--and we had beaten William and Mary. We were flat, and Wake played a great game."

Inconsistency usually means a team's talent is not all it's cracked up to be. Those occasional nights when everyone is clicking raise expectations to levels the talent cannot sustain. That's why Driesell isn't running his mouth right now.

Instead, he said this team needs to win some more games. A victory over Clemson today "ought to get us in the top 20," Driesell said. "We deserve it."

Now 15-6 with at least six games to play, Maryland likely needs three or four more victories to get into the NCAA tournament.

"If we get an NCAA bid, I think the NCAA rules (no clock, no three-point shot) will help us," Driesell said. "We're very good at holding the ball. Virginia was No. 1 last year when we slowed it down and beat them. And now we've learned to play with the clock and the three-point play. So we can go both ways now.

"I'm looking forward to the playoffs, because if we get in there, I think we can be good."