When a program is as steeped in scandal and tragedy as Maryland basketball was just one year ago, it often remains moribund for a decade or more. Coach follows coach. Bad records, like the Terrapins' 0-14 ACC mark last season, become the norm. A virulent anti-tradition starts perpetuating itself.

So, what's going on out at College Park? Why is everybody daring to smile? Isn't it too soon to put away the sack cloth? Coach Bob Wade faces a daily struggle to keep his tone of voice modulated and maintain some measure of realism in the face of his own optimism that tends to overwhelm him.

Last year, Wade had five credible ACC players, not one of them a center. The Terrapins worked hard, often stayed close, but always wore out by the end. Now, Wade has all five starters back, plus two of the better freshmen center prospects in the country (Brian Williams and Cedric Lewis) and perhaps the best junior college point guard (Rudy Archer). Learn those names.

Add to that three promising players who may or may not make the grades that Wade demands. Frankly, Maryland doesn't need guard Keith Gatlin, 6-foot-9 Tony Massenburg and 250-pound transfer Rodney Walker if they can't keep pace on the academic track. The Terrapins still need credibility far more than rebounds. But what if they were available, too?

Suddenly, Maryland would have four new men bigger than any Terrapin last year. All-ACC Derrick Lewis could move to his natural position -- big forward. Dave Dickerson could shift down to his true spot -- small forward. And, in a wink, Maryland would have five legitimate ACC guards -- Archer, Steve Hood (14.2 ppg), John Johnson (10.9), all-ACC honor student Teyon McCoy and Gatlin.

Could Maryland possibly go from one of the smallest and shallowest teams in the nation to one that's fairly big and extremely deep in just one year? Do phrases like "press all night," "send 'em in waves" and "crash the boards" sound familiar to fans of Baltimore's Dunbar High, where Wade went 272-24, including a six-season run of 165-2.

"Eight {good players} is enough. But 10 would be nice. I'm spoiled," said Wade. The Maryland coach knows he ought to lie in the weeds and moan in a low poor-mouth murmur. Even if his players stayed healthy and passed every course, he'd be giving significant playing time to two freshmen, three sophomores and two transfers who are new to the ACC. "If we win one ACC game this season, I will consider the year a success," he said.

In the next breath, Wade seems like he can't wait to get his claws on Georgia Tech and Virginia and, by year's end, maybe Duke and North Carolina. "We answered a lot of questions in our first two games {beating Loyola and Mississippi}. Will we be big enough to rebound this year? I think 'Yes.' Can we depend on others, not just Derrick Lewis? 'Yes.' Do we have a foundation {of talent} and a rotation {of players} and a system {of offense and defense} that can compete? Those concerns were answered.

"In one game, we fell behind, then pulled together and won. The next night, the tables were turned. We had the lead but didn't panic down the stretch. This year, we'll be able to finish games. We won't be exhausted or have to resort to playing zones and gimmick defenses . . . We were pressed 75 percent of the time last year because we didn't have the personnel to cope. Now, we'll hurt people who press us more than they hurt us."

December will be absorbing, to say the least, for Maryland followers. What we have here is a team of tantalizing talent, but undetermined chemistry and character. "By the time we open our league schedule {on Jan. 2}, we'll know what we've got," said Wade. When you play West Virginia, LSU, South Carolina and Arkansas as tune-up games, you get a quick glimpse of the truth.

Toss into this stew a coach who, for the time being, still carries with him the mystique of being a brawny, blunt high school legend who also played in the NFL. Charisma is, however, a quickly depreciable trait in sport. Recently, Wade was one of five finalists in the recruitment of Alonzo Mourning, who went to Georgetown. Coming that close made Wade look big time; but he's still living off prep credits and those are sure to fade.

That's why this season is vital to Wade and Maryland. He has a five-year contract and looks like a fellow who is going to be fairly successful anywhere in the long run. Wade works too hard, cares about his players too much, throws his weight around with too much brooding, bullying effectiveness and hates to lose too fiercely to be a likely candidate for failure. He seems very comfortable at this new level. You don't find many college coaches who eat dinner every night with their team, then drop into the dorms to watch TV and talk about classes. "I think I surprised 'em." And not many coaches have wives as effectively involved with the team as Carolyn Wade.

Maryland's boss will be 43 on Wednesday. He didn't get where he is in a hurry. So, he had time to develop the presence to be a BMOC in the college game quite quickly when he finally arrived. "I'm used to running a program that has pride, tradition and knows how to live with the pressure of expecting to win," said Wade.

He will need his share of breaks.

But what happens if bad breaks come? Derrick Lewis has high blood pressure and borderline grade problems. Freshmen and transfers and guys with classroom troubles are not exactly blue-chip stocks to take on the road into the ACC. And all teams have injuries.

Many will find this Terrapins team a surprise and pleasure even if it merely moves its 9-17 record above .500 -- a standard this team will have a hard time failing to meet. Insiders at Maryland, however, suspect that considerably more might be possible. After all the misery that has beset those in Cole Field House lately, they can't wait to see if some of their daydreams might actually come true.