Danny Ferry prefaces his remarks with a golly. Here he is, living in the land of the penny loafer, Duke University, and throw in a couple of Wheaties-fed goshes because the Blue Devils are, gee, No. 1.

Duke's youngest basketball star scampers around this gothic edifice almost indistinguishable from the rest of the clean-cut crowd, save for the occasional ungainliness that results from being a not quite full-grown 6 feet 10, and the telltale overeagerness that goes with being a freshman. But this is a season when freshmen have become instrumental to top-ranked teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Ferry is an unmistakable presence on campus, where the Blue Devils have become the heroes of the preppy intelligentsia.

Ferry truly looks Duke as he wanders through the day in his fraying oxford cloth and talks quietly, intelligently Duke. Ferry quite simply fits, like the rest of this uniform student body, which is saved from being totally elitist by a terminal case of irreverence and relieved of blandness by an occasional adventurous pair of earrings -- "I'm sort of disappointed. I got an A minus," -- or a slightly punk haircut -- "You mean if I sign up for it then I have to, like, go?"

"This," Ferry said breathlessly, "is a college."

Which is why he chose it, after being relentlessly courted by North Carolina, Maryland and every other school that looks adoringly on anyone over 6 feet with a fall-away. Since then, Duke has turned into a contender for the national championship, and the outright first-place team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and that is in no small way due to Ferry.

Ferry has started 21 of 31 games at center for the Blue Devils, and although his numbers are not spectacular, they are consistent for an 18-year-old thrown into the maw of the ACC. He averages 6.0 points and 5.9 rebounds with a regular 23.8 minutes a game.

With 6-8 senior Jay Bilas troubled by nagging injuries and 6-8 Mark Alarie more of a delicate forward, Ferry has become an indispensable front-line player. He also provides Duke more front-court options; his rebounding led the team for most of the season until Alarie recently passed him, and he has been active enough to lead the team in fouls.

"He's certainly made us a lot better," Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "A critical analysis of his on-court presence shows that. For one thing, he's had a big effect in that we can look at a lot of different lineups. He's kept us fresh all year, he's been our leading rebounder, he's helped in all kinds of ways."

Except for one. Offensively, Ferry has been something of a secret and for that reason he has been overshadowed in his first year by Jeff Lebo of No. 4 North Carolina and Tom Hammonds of No. 5 Georgia Tech, who will probably duel for conference rookie of the year honors. Lebo, who has played in all 30 games for North Carolina, averages 9.2 points and is third on the team in assists. Power forward Hammonds has been perhaps the most visible for the Yellow Jackets, averaging 12.5 points, 61 percent shooting and a team-leading 6.6 rebounds.

Ferry's season has been largely one of glimpses, a rippling jumper here, a snazzy pass there, a short-lived move to the basket. He is shooting 42.9 percent, well under what was expected from the DeMatha star who was reputed to be one of the most complete young players in the country.

Ferry admits his confidence has been undermined by the frantic pace of the ACC. His jumper is a sometime thing, and he went through a midseason slump when nothing seemed to fall. His season high is 13 points, against Vanderbilt on Dec. 4, but his most complete game probably came against Notre Dame Feb. 16, when he got 10 points and four rebounds.

"It used to be easy," he said. "Everyone is so much bigger and faster. What I've got to do is work to get it to the point where it's easy again."

One reason for Ferry's lack of offense is that Krzyzewski is wary of rushing him. Krzyzewski's only request has been that Ferry fit in unobtrusively, and, in the first part of the season, he went so far as to tell Ferry not to try to score. He has concentrated on rebounding and defense, and his main chore has been not to disrupt a team of four four-year starters in Alarie, Bilas, Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson.

"I think there has been a little pressure with all the attention," Krzyzewski said. "He hasn't gone crazy about it, though. I'm sure he'd probably like to bust loose. In some respects, he's been under wraps. But we can't have everybody exploding in all different directions."

So Ferry is fitting in, contenting himself with being a role player and reveling in the surroundings of Duke. Anonymity may be a strange thing to wish for when you are 6-10 and handle the basketball with uncommon dexterity, but that is what Ferry wanted. So one of the most highly prized recruits in the country and the son of Washington Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry picked a university that eschews athletic dorms and frowns on letter jackets.

Consequently, he lives with the great unwashed freshmen in Wannamaker Dormitory -- treated there like everyone else, which became clear the other day when someone stole his clothes while he was in the shower and left a garbage bag behind. So Ferry wrapped himself up in it and walked into the hallway, where someone else took his picture and put it on the bulletin board, and there it remains, all 6-10 of him in extra large Lawn and Leaf.

"I just wanted to go to college like everyone else," he said. "But what with everything going on, it's getting sort of hard to keep good living habits."

Wannamaker is notorious for keeping freshman basketball players up with raucous laughter until the late hours on pregame nights. Sometimes Ferry sleeps at Krzyzewski's house, although usually he wanders over to the abode of Alarie and Bilas, sleeping on what was once Alarie's favorite couch.

That Duke's upperclassmen have adopted Ferry is something of a departure. Such did not happen four years ago, when Dawkins, Alarie, Bilas and Henderson were recruited by Krzyzewski and became immediate starters, to the irritation of the seniors. There were reports of friction on the team, and that could have occurred again this year, when Ferry started 21 games in place of ailing Bilas.

"We're all seniors who've started our whole careers," Alarie said. "It's remarkable that a guy like Danny can step into that. It's a system that feeds on understanding. We've been in a million close games and different situations together. We know our strengths and weaknesses. Danny understands that and doesn't try to take too much on himself."

Krzyzewski has very definite ideas about the care and feeding of freshmen, as his meticulous cultivation of his four seniors attests. The difference in his training of Ferry is that he now has the luxury of his four upperclassmen to give Ferry time and room for development.

"He's actually in a good situation because the burden is not on him to win the game," Bob Ferry said. "He's just asked to contribute, and that's the coaching. They don't want him to think as a scorer yet. I think he'll be a much better scorer after this year."

The consensus is that Ferry is more likely to emerge next season, if only out of necessity with the four starters leaving. He is not yet moving as well as he might; he still lacks some strength to go along with his size. But his brief flares of talent are impressive, and he possesses the kinds of fundamentals to be expected of a product of a basketball family. He moves and shoots well, and his passing has a flair rarely seen in a big man. He can throw a pass that can turn a corner.

"The numbers game will start next year," Krzyzewski said. "I think some of the things you'll see will amaze you."

With Tommy Amaker the only full-time starter returning, the Blue Devils will be one of the younger teams in the conference next year, and they need returning experience.

"We're not just going to close up shop next year when these guys leave," Krzyzewski said. "We've got to have something to fall back on. I don't consider Danny a freshman anymore. With the playing time he's had, he's a veteran."