Maryland's first two victories this basketball season were close calls, but the Terrapins may lose their flair for neat escapes in their third game tonight against Ohio State.

The Terrapins barely sidestepped Northeastern and George Mason in games they should have won easily. Now they must meet Ohio State in Columbus with a freshman center, David Gregg, making his first start.

At St. John Arena at 8 p.m., they also will face a couple of things they haven't encountered yet: a comparable team and a bona fide front court.

"They're a much better club than the other two," Coach Charles G. Driesell said. "They're probably 20 points better."

It does not help the Terrapins that they will be without center Terry Long, who will miss his second straight game with a bruised knee. Instead, Gregg, a 6-foot-9 freshman, probably will alternate with freshman Tony Massenburg.

Driesell said Long was expected to miss another week. He made only a brief appearance against George Mason before he sat down, and he had only four points and four rebounds against Northeastern.

Gregg, a graduate of Northwestern High School, is one of Maryland's more promising freshmen and was thought to be a potential redshirt. But Driesell liked him well enough in preseason to keep him on the team to help out Long. He lacks experience, however. He played only five minutes against both George Mason, when he had two points and one rebound, and Northeastern, when he went scoreless. Massenburg is scoreless and has no rebounds in 11 minutes in two games.

"He's (Gregg) playing pretty good," Driesell said. "They're strong, and he's making his first start, so it should be a good test for him."

The Terrapins did not pull away from Northeastern until the final five minutes in their 84-72 victory in their home opener last Saturday, and they were not pleased with their 81-80 victory over George Mason on Tuesday night. After they led by 13 points, they let the Patriots back in the game, displayed poor shot selection and allowed Mason to pull them into what amounted to a pickup game.

Maryland probably won't do that against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are something of a mystery, with only two starters returning. But those two had key roles on last year's 20-10 team that went to the second round of the NCAA tournament before being beaten by Louisiana Tech. With only four lettermen back and some position changes, the Buckeyes have a new look. They also have size.

Brad Sellers, a 7-footer, is one of the returning starters, and he averaged 15.6 points last season at center. But he has been moved to forward, his true position, with 6-9 sophomore John Anderson starting at center and 6-9 Keith Wesson available off the bench. The small forward is 6-5 freshman Gerry Francis, a typically physical Big Ten player.

"They're big," Driesell said. "We don't mind the physical part. But they're by far the biggest team we've played."

Sellers became one of the most consistent offensive threats for Ohio State last year after he transferred from Wisconsin, where he started for two seasons. He was in double figures in 23 of his 28 starts, and he also had 10 or more rebounds in 12 games. He played defense as well and blocked 90 shots.

The other returning starter is 6-5 Dennis Hopson, who averaged 9.8 points. He ended the season with six straight games in double figures, including a career-high 20 against Louisiana Tech. But since then, Hopson has been moved from small forward to off guard to bolster a back court that is all new after the loss of four-year starters Troy Taylor and Ron Stokes.

Point guard still is something of a mystery. Three players with equal inexperience have been alternating: sophomore Kip Lomax, redshirt freshman Curtis Wilson and crowd favorite Jay Burson, a 6-foot freshman who is playing the most minutes.

Virginia's home opener will be in the first round of the United Virginia Bank Classic against Towson State tonight at 7 p.m. Virginia Commonwealth and North Carolina-Wilmington meet at 9 p.m. in the other first-round game. The championship will be Sunday at 3 p.m. after the consolation game at 1 p.m.

The Cavaliers have gone back to running, and it gave them a surprising 92-77 win over Houston last Saturday at Capital Centre. In that game, Olden Polynice tied his career high with 25 points, and Tom Sheehey added 15, and they performed like one of the more experienced front courts in the country. The back court is a question mark, although Coach Terry Holland was pleased with Tom Calloway, who had 18 points against Houston.