Lefty Driesell, whose Maryland basketball team is in the top 20 for the second time this season, was a happy man yesterday until the subject of Virginia came up.

The Terrapins are ranked 17th after defeating Notre Dame and Villanova over the weekend, but Driesell's smile turned into a wince at the mention of the Cavaliers. Maryland is leading the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 3-1 record and Virginia is last at 1-6, but the Cavaliers are coming into Cole Field House at 8 tonight off upsets over Wake Forest and Arkansas and aren't as bad as their 10-9 record looks.

Driesell feigned fatigue. He could identify with Virginia Coach Terry Holland, who still is hospitalized in Charlottesville with a mysterious stomach ailment.

"I told Terry, they've won two games with him sick, so he better stay home," Driesell said.

" . . . I just want to beat Virginia one more time. My heart's been hurting me and it might be my last one."

The Terrapins were briefly ranked No. 19 four weeks ago before falling out of the polls. That memory still is fresh enough for Driesell to put a lid on any celebrations as Maryland (16-5) picks up its ACC schedule again, especially with Virginia's resurgence.

"I was hoping they'd come in here with a losing streak," he said. "Instead, they had two big wins and they're coming in on a roll."

Another reminder of how precarious the Terrapins' position is came when Georgetown's 29-game winning streak was broken by No. 1 St. John's. Syracuse then made the losing streak two.

"When you start thinking you're invincible, that's when you get beat," he said. "If you think you're invincible, you're nuts. I still think Georgetown is No. 1. But if you stay up there long enough and everybody is shooting at you, pretty soon somebody is going to knock you off."

Seven of Virginia's losses came by six points or less. The Cavaliers' weekend victories mostly were thanks to a tough collapsing zone defense that makes it hard to work inside. Ranked No. 1 in ACC scoring defense, they held Arkansas' Joe Kleine to 14 points after he had been averaging more than 23.

Maryland can look forward to the same kind of treatment. Freshman center Derrick Lewis could have a particularly difficult night against Virginia's Olden Polynice.

"They start out in a 1-2-2 zone and sometimes drop into a 2-3," Driesell said. "They hardly come above the free throw line. They give you the outside shot and if you miss it they get the rebound . . . If you have success with something, you do it again. We expect to see them in a packed zone."

Virginia's zone will concentrate on leading scorers Len Bias and Adrian Branch. That makes the outside shooting of Maryland's guards, notably Keith Gatlin and Jeff Adkins, crucial because they probably will be getting outside opportunities all night.

"Keith had been a little tentative, walking the ball up for a couple of games," he said. "He did push it upcourt better the last couple of games. That's what we want against Virginia, an up-tempo game."

Polynice is averaging 12.7 points and 7.4 rebounds. The only other Cavalier in double figures is forward Tom Sheehey, averaging 11 points, and the Terrapins expect them to play a slowdown game.

The Cavaliers' offensive troubles this season have come mostly from an inexperienced back court beset by turnovers. Sophomore Tom Calloway started against Arkansas with good results, scoring nine points, but the really good news was that the turnovers went down. He'll start again tonight.

Forward Dan Merrifield sprained his left knee against Arkansas and will stay in Charlottesville. Senior Jim Miller likely will start in his place.