You hear it at Louisville or Michigan or UCLA. Wherever there is a nationally ranked basketball team, fans, and players alike are convinced San Francisco is overrated and that their particular team should be No. 1.

In past years, when Indiana or UCLA held the top spot, there was less such heady thinking. But this season, San Francisco can't get any respect despite 23 straight victories. The reason seems to be lack of exposure.

Hardly anyone has seen the Dons play this year. The farthest east they've been is Utah and they have not appeared on national television. So only those squads that have lost to them can say how good they are, and most of those teams are on the West Coast.

It's easy for a coach to look at the Dons' hardly challenging schedule and say, as Dean Smith does frequently, "Well, San Francisco would have a hard time staying undefeated in this (fill in the blank) league."

After interviewing basketball experts who have watched San Francisco, it becomes apparent the Dons would do nicely in any conference. But they also are not invincible.

Santa Clara proved that point by almost beating San Francisco 10 days ago. Only a last-second basket by guard Chubby Cox, a one-time Philadelphia high school flash, salvaged the victory for the Dons.

Now San Francisco faces what has to be the hardest part of its regular-season schedule. For the next two weeks, the Dons must play all road games, including possible road-blocks at Nevada-Reno and at Pepperdine.

Neither of those two opponents are very well known nationally either, but Reno has a fine center in Edgar Jones and Pepperdine beat San Francisco twice last year. The Dons already have defeated both squads in San Francisco.

The most likely stumbling block for Bob Gaillard's crew, however, is a March 1 showdown with Notre Dame in South Bend. Although San Francisco has played some difficult opponents on the road the past two years (and has beaten Utah, Tennessee and St. John's this season), there is hardly anything in college basketball quite like playing the Irish in their Athletic and Convocation Center.

When San Francisco finally makes its television debut in the NCAA tournament, the nation will get a chance to see a team similar in many respects to this year's UCLA squad.

Like the Bruins, San Francisco is both big and quick, which makes the two teams unique in college basketball this season. Other top 10 squads are either big or quick but none combines the two elements quite like UCLA and San Francisco.

Most of the Dons' scoring punch comes from 6-foot-9 James Hardy and 7-0 Bill Cartwright on the inside and 6-6 Winford Boynes on the outside. Cox, a transfer from Villanova who sat out last year, is the playmaker that last season's team needed so badly. Forward Marlon Redmond, an all-conference player two years ago, is one of those versatile players who can score and rebound.

Statistically, this unit, along with reserves Ron Williams, allen Thompson and Jeff Randell, has been excellent. The Dons are second nationally in scoring (94 points a game), sixth in scoring margin (19.3), and fourth in rebound margin (10.3). They shoot very well, hitting 54 per cent of their field goals (third nationally) and 77 per cent of their foul shots (fifth nationally).

Teams who run with San Fancisco have problems. Hardy, Cartwright and Redmond all are consistent rebounders and Boynes and Cox can break for outlet passes. Hardy also is a fine shot-blocker who can get his squad running with one of his giant swats.

Opponents have come closer by getting the Dons in a controlled tempo contest, where San Francisco is required to show some poise and practice. Gaillard, who had a fine coaching reputation before this season, has left this team show its individual personalities, much like Al McGuire at Marquette, and at times his players aren't as disciplined as he probably would like.

A good example of what a disciplined opponent can do to a more talented foe occurred yesterday in the Providence-Louisville game. Louisville came close to losing at home when Providence applied fine defensive pressure in the second half and patiently worked for good shots. When the Friars chose to run in the first half, they were nearly blown back to Providence.

The one strength San Francisco always has in its favor is great natural ability. Cartwright, Boynes and Hardy were highly recruited two years ago, good enough to play for anyone. In this aspect, the Dons are like the best Altlantic Coast Conference teams in such vintage years as 1972-73, when North Carolina State and Maryland were so strong.

And N.C. State won a national championship with one of those squads.