Maryland's 1990-91 basketball season, a year that already has been played out in newspapers and magazines for months, finally will begin to unfold on the court tonight at Cole Field House when the Terrapins open against Towson State at 7:30.

"Finally. Now we can get to basketball," said Maryland Coach Gary Williams. But Williams knows it's not that simple. Wherever they play, the Terrapins will be bracketed by the day last spring when the program was placed on NCAA probation for violations that occurred mostly during the tenure of former coach Bob Wade.

The details of the sanctions -- no postseason tournaments for two seasons, no live television appearances this season -- have been trumpeted throughout the country, often giving the impression the games themselves are irrelevant. Even on the College Park campus, most of the hubbub has centered on the roller coaster ride of Coach Joe Krivak and the Maryland football team.

That's a marked contrast to a year ago, when Williams left Ohio State to return to his alma mater and immediately was hailed a conquering hero. The fiery coach then guided the Terrapins to a 19-14 record and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.

Williams said the quiet that has surrounded his team during the preseason is "normal. This is how it's been everywhere else I've been coaching -- you just concentrate on the basketball."

But the coach noted one aspect of Maryland's sanctions have hurt the team in the last week or so. Because the Terrapins are restricted to 28 regular season games, they couldn't play in preseason tournaments or exhibitions.

"That was the toughest part of practicing: watching while other teams were playing," Williams said. "I've liked the way we've concentrated, we've had a good preseason but that got tough."

Things might get tougher, because four starters from last season's team are missing. Tony Massenburg and Jerrod Mustaf are in the NBA, guard Teyon McCoy transferred to Texas and forward Jesse Martin is redshirting because of academic problems. That group contributed more than 71 percent of the team's points, 62 percent of the rebounds and 59 percent of the assists a year ago. Now, other players must step forward.

Most eyes will be focused on 6-foot-8 junior point guard Walt Williams, who last year averages 12.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. When he wasn't concentrating on his decision to stay at Maryland, Williams was working on his outside shot and jumping rope to improve his footwork.

Though Walt Williams and 6-6 sharpshooter Matt Roe make a formidable backcourt and small forward Vince Broadnax may be the best one-on-one defender in the ACC, Maryland's success will be determined ultimately by players such as Cedric Lewis, Evers Burns and Garfield Smith. One of those three has to emerge as a scoring threat from the front line. Gary Williams said Smith, a junior college transfer from New York City, is starting tonight at power forward because he was Maryland's best preseason rebounder and also the player most likely to keep defenses honest.

Maryland's work ethic will be tested immediately against Towson State, which returns seven players from a team that nearly upset Oklahoma in the opening round of last season's NCAA tournament. Not only will the Terrapins have to contend with talented guards Devin Boyd and Lewis Waller, they will do so without the air of invincibility that collapsed when Coppin State upset them last season.

"In-state schools aren't afraid of us anymore after that," Gary Williams said. "Now everyone who comes here will be ready to play. The question is if we're ready to play hard in response. Last year we didn't do that consistently until January. This year one of our goals is to do it in November and December."

Other area teams playing tonight include Virginia vs. UCLA in the final of the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage; George Mason at East Tennessee State; Navy hosting Mount St. Mary's; and St. Joseph's at George Washington.