The starting date for basketball practice last year had come and gone and the Maryland Terrapins still didn't know if they would have a ball to bounce. Who would coach? Would there be a team to coach?

"We're just running around with no organization, no coach, just trying to stick together like brothers until tomorrow comes," Dave Dickerson told a reporter the day Lefty Driesell resigned under pressure. "I keep saying things can't get any worse."

One day later, Chancellor John B. Slaughter hired Bob Wade to replace Driesell. None of the players knew the man from Dunbar High School in Baltimore, so there were awkward introductions two days before the team started practice. Once the season started, some would say, things got better. Just playing seemed to be a relief from the turmoil caused by the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias on June 19.

Others might argue that things got worse, as the Terrapins lost all 14 regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference games, another in the tournament and finished with a 9-17 record. The last time a Maryland team had not won 10 games and finished under .500 was the 1968-69 season.

Dickerson, playing out of position like several other players, was one of the five who started all 26 games. He remembers it all -- the good and the bad of a year ago.

"The low point was the firing of Coach Driesell and having to introduce ourselves to Coach Wade," Dickerson said recently, echoing the sentiments of several players. "Everything happened so soon. There was a big change in the whole program in five days. Another low point was losing to Wake Forest twice. But I think one of the high points was Coach Wade himself. He came in and it didn't take him a whole year to adapt to us. He's still learning about us, but a high point was him doing the job he did. We beat West Virginia and were in a lot of close games at the end. I think we proved we could have won them with a break here or there."

Obviously, this season, which opens for the Terrapins Friday night at the Baltimore Arena in the first round of the MCI Classic (against Loyola), is different for Wade, if only because there has been more time to think about it. Wade has had time to put up a picture or two in his office, learn about his players and recruit new ones. As he said recently, "The situation is very different."

So are the expectations, and Wade has some large ones of his own.

"Bob Wade has tremendous confidence in himself and his team," Wade said, speaking in the third person. "He wants to win the first game, get off to a fast start and be competitive. He doesn't want to be a doormat and he wants to compete with the upper echelon of the conference."

As Wade was coming in last year, forward Derrick Lewis was thinking of going out, but after a couple of weeks of practice, he announced he would not transfer.

"I'm glad I didn't," said Lewis, the Terrapins' only senior this season. "I wouldn't have had the opportunity to play for Coach Wade. We went through a lot last year, and that kept the team closer together. We could've packed it up and not even played. I'm glad we decided to play. And I think we did pretty well with all the adversity."

Despite recurrent high blood pressure problems, Lewis was recently cleared to play this season for the Terrapins.

Last year, university officials pushed the start of practice back from Oct. 15 to Nov. 1. They dropped a couple of games and rearranged others so Maryland played its first game Dec. 27.

"Last year it was like high school," said sophomore guard Steve Hood, who went from a DeMatha High School star to a full-time starter at Maryland. "This fall it's like a real college basketball team. We're ready to go."

After the MCI tournament, the Terrapins will play seven games in December, then open the ACC schedule on Jan. 2 against Wake Forest.

When Wake Forest beat Maryland, 69-58, in early February, it ended the Demon Deacons' 24-game conference losing streak. Twenty days later, Wake beat Maryland again. The Terrapins' frustrating season came to a close when North Carolina beat them, 82-63, in the first round of the ACC tournament at Capital Centre. The only consolation was that they appeared more competitive by the end.

"Toward the end, we showed we could stay with them," Hood said of the ACC competition. "With the little we had then, we were competitive."

Five of the 13 players on last season's roster are not back. Phil Nevin is on scholarship but not playing, Andre Reyes transferred to California, Ivan Powell transferred to a junior college in Connecticut, walk-on Pat Holland is not playing, nor is Tom Worstell, who returned to Dick Edell's lacrosse team.

The new players include 6-foot-10 freshman center Brian Williams, 6-9 freshman center/forward Cedric Lewis and junior college point guard Rudy Archer. Also, center/forward Tony Massenburg is back after missing all of last season while on academic probation. He is practicing but is not yet cleared to play because his academic situation is not to Wade's satisfaction.

Keith Gatlin, who would be the only other senior on the team if he returns, and Rodney Walker are not practicing because they have not met Wade's academic criteria. Walker, who transferred from Syracuse, would not be eligible to play until late December anyway but Gatlin could play right away.

What all these switches amount to is a much more talented team with greater depth. And Lewis and Dickerson said they can see a difference in Wade because of that.

"There's definitely a change," Lewis said. "Last year, we had five people who started and I think he had to cater to people on the starting team because he had no one to replace them. This year, he can put you on the bench as quickly as the wink of an eye, and he will not lose anything. I don't think he'll baby anyone anymore."

Dickerson said the tension is likely to increase for Wade this season with the expectations.

"As far as the person, there's no difference. He's still a good man on and off the court," Dickerson said of Wade. "But with basketball, I can see him being a little more tense. He knows we have the making of a good team. And he has to find the right combination to make us good.

"Last year everybody probably could've predicted what happened, not that we gave up. This year, we have the so-called 'good' players. We have the big men we need. I can see him getting just as tense as us in getting ready to play."

There also is a feeling now that the reverberations from the Bias scandal finally have abated.

"Some things happen and we don't know why. They just happen," Dickerson said. "It lingers because people bring it up. But it has nothing to do with what we're doing now. There is a whole new outlook with this program."

Williams, who broke his nose during Saturday's practice, was back in action yesterday, as was guard/forward Mark Karver. Karver and Williams had been hit by accidental elbows. Williams had said Monday it was Derrick Lewis' elbow that hit him. Yesterday, Wade said it had been Cedric Lewis.