Maryland's basketball team failed to show for its scheduled 3 p.m. practice at The Omni this afternoon and it was humorously speculated that Coach Lefty Driesell had decided to go back to Greensboro, N.C., because his team won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament there a year ago.

Or, perhaps Driesell had decided that since North Carolina Coach Dean Smith never brings his team in to practice the day before the tournament and has won the thing nine times, he would just follow El Deano's routine and stay away.

Actually, the Terrapins' plane was late.

But they made it here finally, along with the rest of the ACC -- even North Carolina was in town by nightfall -- for the annual festival that means nothing and everything all at once.

It all begins at high noon Friday (WJLA-TV-7) with top-seeded Georgia Tech (9-5 in the league, 21-7 overall) playing eighth-seeded Virginia (3-11, 15-14). Then at 2 p.m., fourth-seeded Duke (8-6, 21-6) plays fifth-seeded Maryland (8-6, 23-10). At night, second-seeded Carolina (9-5, 22-7) plays seventh-seeded Wake Forest (5-9, 15-12) before third-seeded N.C. State (9-5, 19-8) and sixth-seeded Clemson (5-9, 16-11) close out the marathon.

What does it all mean? Why will every seat in The Omni be sat in even though a booklet for all three tournament days costs $70?

"Because it's still a great basketball spectacle," said Virginia Coach Terry Holland. "It may not mean as much as it did 10 years ago when it was do-or-die for all the teams, but I guarantee you the kids on every one of these teams wants to win this thing."

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski ventured, "When you play in your own neighborhood, you want to win, because those are the people whose respect you want most."

The top five teams here are certainties for the NCAA Tournament regardless of what they do here. The bottom three -- Clemson, Wake and Virginia -- figure they need at least two victories, maybe three, to get in. But the tradition and memories of 32 years makes this three days important to everyone.

"Each year you come in here with a different feeling," said Virginia senior Tim Mullen. "My first two years we were already in the NCAAs but when we lost it really hurt. This year we figure we have to win to get into the NCAAs so that's a different incentive. But it isn't necessarily more incentive."

There is no clear-cut favorite in the tournament. The fact that the top five teams finished within one game of each other is reason enough for that.That everyone here has at least six losses is another reason. That North Carolina is ranked sixth, Duke eighth, Georgia Tech ninth and State 12th nationally is another reason.

"And Maryland should be ranked," said Krzyzewski, playing the build-up-the-opposition game. "They played the toughest schedule in the country."

In fact, once one wades through the usual tournament-eve cliches -- Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins said at least 100 times today that any team in the field could win -- the opening day should be an interesting one.

Opening opponents Tech and Virginia, despite disparity in record, have matched up well on the court. They split their two games in the regular season. The Cavaliers had a lot of success using a diamond-and-one defense on the Yellow Jackets' leading scorer Mark Price (16.7 ppg) and if they can maintain a walk-it-up pace and not get killed inside by 7-footers John Salley and Yvon Joseph, they can pull an upset.

"We think our defense can keep us in," Holland said. "As long as we can maintain that with some consistency and not get tentative on offense, we're capable of playing very good basketball. We've shown that at times this year."

The second game is a tossup. The Terrapins and the Blue Devils split their regular-season games, each winning a close match at home. Maryland has the leading scorer in the ACC in Len Bias (19 ppg) and the third-leading scorer in Adrian Branch (18.5).

The Blue Devils have Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker, regarded as the quickest back court in America, and 6-8 Mark Alarie, who shot 10 for 12 in Duke's victory in Durham.

What will decide? Maybe Branch and David Henderson. Branch was held to 12 points at Duke. Henderson, the Blue Devils' third-leading scorer, has been up and down for the last month. When he has been good, Duke has been very good.

Or maybe Driesell and his off-white golf sweater are on a roll. The Maryland coach has worn the sweater during the Terrapins' last two victories and says he will wear it until his team loses.