Coming off its best season, the Maryland men's basketball team opens a new season tonight when it hosts San Francisco at Cole Field House in the opening round of the 16-team Preseason NIT.

Meantime, the program began taking shape for next season, as Maryland Coach Gary Williams said yesterday that the Terrapins have received a signed national letter-of-intent from one of the nation's top high school players, forward Chris Wilcox of Enloe High School in Raleigh. Wilcox, who is 6 feet 9 and weighs 240 pounds, is rated as the nation's 20th-best high school senior by recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons.

This season, with four new starters--including freshman point guard Steve Blake--and two other freshmen likely to play key roles, Williams's 11th Maryland team will be one of his youngest. But with preseason all-American junior forward Terence Morris back, Williams is still hoping for a seventh straight NCAA tournament appearance.

"I have high expectations for this team--coaches' expectations are always different than fans' expectations," said Williams, whose team is unranked in the Associated Press media poll and 23rd in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll. "I think we're a very good passing team right now. [We] probably move the ball better than we did last year in terms of feeding people who are open. And Terence has a lot to do with that, because he is so unselfish."

Expectations are high for Morris, who averaged 15.3 points and 7.1 rebounds last season. But this season's team seems unlikely to have the flash it had last season when Steve Francis, Laron Profit and Morris led the Terrapins to a school-record 28 victories. Francis and Profit are with the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards, respectively. Sophomores Danny Miller, Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon move from reserve roles into the starting lineup.

The Terrapins probably will not press nearly as much as they did last season because they have less depth. Freshman guard Drew Nicholas, freshman forward Tahj Holden and redshirt junior center Mike Mardesich are the reserves who will play regularly.

"You might have to regulate how much you press," Williams said. "We'll see. You never know about that until you get in a game."

A victory tonight would give Williams 400 for his career, which started in 1978 at American. In his first 21 seasons, Williams has a record of 399-246.

"It means, seriously, being in the business for a while, no matter what your record is," Williams said. "It is something that will be more significant when I'm not coaching. . . . It will be good to get it out of the way if we do win."

It already has been a busy week for Williams, who became a grandfather Monday morning when his daughter, Kristin Scott, gave birth to a son, David Geoffrey Scott. Williams flew to Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday night to be present for the birth, then flew back to Maryland on Monday afternoon in time for practice.

San Francisco, which advanced to the NCAA tournament in 1998, is coming off a 12-18 season. But the Dons return four starters and add senior center Kenyon Jones, a transfer from California, and highly touted freshman Darrell Tucker, who spent last season at Redemption Academy in Troy, N.Y., after failing to meet the NCAA's minimum academic standards to receive a scholarship as a freshman.

In the first round of the 1994 Preseason NIT, San Francisco went to New Mexico--one of the toughest places for visiting teams--and won, 80-74.

"Our guys are looking forward to playing here, playing hard and giving it our best shot," San Francisco Coach Phil Mathews said after his team practiced at Cole yesterday afternoon. ". . . I don't think my guys will be intimidated. They'll come to play."

As for Wilcox, he chose Maryland over North Carolina State and Miami. As a junior last season, before transferring to Enloe, he led Whiteville High to the North Carolina 2A championship.

"We really like him," Williams said. "He is close to 6-10 now and he's agile. I like a big guy who can run. He is not stuck with his back to the basket."