Perhaps only at Thomas Jefferson's university could a basketball team react to being ranked No. 2 in the country in such a Cavalier manner.

"Who cares where we're ranked?" said Jeff Lamp, the senior captain of the undefeated University of Virginia team.

"Lord, no, I don't want us to move up to No. 1," said Coach Terry Holland, whose team's 16-game winning streak is the longest in major college basketball. "I was hoping we could stay at No. 3."

"If we get to No. 1, I guess we'll be happy; but not too happy," said 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson, whose Cavs face seventh-ranked Maryland at Cole Field House tonight at 9 o'clock. (WJLA-TV-7). "When it happens, it happens. Our fans are all excited now. But we won't be excited until March. That's the only time it counts."

To say that Virginia -- both the university and the state -- are in a tizzy, would be an understatement. No college in the state has ever been ranked so highly in a major sport, either football or basketball. The school has not had a basketball team with such a winning streak since 1915.

Manifestations of Cavalier syndrome are everywhere here. Car bumper stickers proclaim: "I Want It . . . I'm Ready For It. . . . a Cavalier experience." When Virginia visits Clemson Monday, the game will be shown on closed-circuit TV on a 14-foot-high screen at $5 a pop in University Hall (the gym now known as Ralph's House).

Throughout Virginia, the Cav cause is producing ripples. For instance, last Saturday in Norfolk, the Virginia Press Association held its annual luncheon, followed by a panel discussion of serious journalistic problems with guest speakers that included judges, university presidents and the like. The luncheon conveniently ended 15 minutes before the Virginia-North Carolina game came on TV. The room full of 250 sober-sided newspersons had to make a decision: the room on the one side held the blue-ribbon panel discussion, the room on the other side had a TV set turned to the Cav game.

About 50 listened to the dignitaries while 200 watched Sampson and Co.

The reason the Cavaliers are so seemingly blase is that they went through a similar experience only a year ago. And it was a bitter one. Then, Virginia began its season 12-1, reached the top 10 and was surrounded by hoopla. "We got our ranking on reputation, not on anything we'd really done," said Sampson.

The bubble burst. Virginia lost nine of its next 16 games and, after a first-round kayo in the ACC tournament, wasn't even invited to the bloated 48-team NCAA tournament field. The Wahoos became yahoos; they were ripe to be the flops of the college basketball season.

Since that bleak juncture, Virginia basketball has done a turnabout.

"Sometimes, with a player who's in a slump, you have to go ahead and destroy his confidence until it's right down to zero," said Holland. "Bench him. Tell him, 'Okay, we tried to encourage you, help you. But you've finally convinced us. You're right.You're no good.' Then, you can start building again. Rebuild his confidence one skill at a time. It's weird, but it happens all the time."

That, multiplied by an entire team, is what happened to the Cavaliers.

"With a whole team, its more than just multiplying the problems of one individual by five. It's more like a geometric progression. Your problems seem like 2 to the fifth power," said Holland, talking like a Virginia man. "Every problem compounds every other problem."

The remedy for that predicament proved to be the '80 NIT tournament in which the Cavaliers gradually discovered their game and ended as champions. i

That poise has stayed with the Cavs through their 11-0 record this year. The addition of two quick, freshmen guards, Othell Wilson and Rick Stokes, has improved the back court. However, this Virginia team is substantially last year's team with better chemistry and more experience.

The Cavaliers have begun this season so well that it has almost become a problem for them. As an example, last Saturday here, they trailed Carolina by 14 points, and came back to win. "The best half of basketball we've played in my four years here," said forward Lee Raker. In that game, Virginia scored on its last 13 possessions, and 18 of its last 19.

Why should such a performance be worrisome?

"This isn't the time of year to peak," said Holland. "College basketball has changed. Once, being No. 1 or No. 2 meant you were indestructible. Now, it just means you're the next candidate to get destroyed. Every team has to overcome adversity now. Three of the four teams in the final four last year had 10 losses. We (coaches) used to worry about how to prepare our teams to win.

"Now, you almost have to figure out how to prepare your team to lose. How do you do that?

"Sometimes I'm afraid that the longer a team goes undefeated, the less able they are to deal with it (a loss)," said Holland. "I think a team needs a recovery period after it hits its first bad snag."

Now, in a nice piece of reverse psychology, the Cavs have half convinced themselves that they really aren't playing well. "Even if we're No. 1, we aren't," said Lamp before this week's wire service polls were released. We're playing well, but not great. We should be concerned with playing better, not rankings."

Anyone studying Virginia's stats might scratch his head over this. After all, the Cavs are shooting .542 while holding opponents to a .417 field-goal-percentage mark that is a testament to Sampson's total impact on defense. Virginia has four players shooting better than .600. And the Cavs have learned to balance their scoring load properly. Sampson is taking the most shots (14 a game), but not too many, and leading Lamp in scoring, 20.3 to 17.0. Raker (11.3 ppg) has recently rediscovered his shooting touch, removing the team's only nagging offensive problem.

In fact, when Holland pores over his team's numbers, he can find only two nits to pick: Sampson's free-throw percentage is .594, while his limited power forwards, 6-foot-9 Craig Robinson and 6-8 Terry Gates, average fewer than seven rebounds a game between them.

If Virginia has a symbol now, it is Sampson. Ten days before the season, he was hospitalized with a mysterious virus that was so bad he was on IV for five days, took a series of painful tests, including barium enemas, and lost more than 15 pounds, which it had cost him a year of weightlifting to acquire.

"It never was diagnosed," said Holland. "Ralph had just started to fill out, too. Everybody noticed it. His weight jumped over 220 for the first time; he had more facial hair. We were saying, 'It's finally happened. Ralph is turning the last corner. Watch out now.'"

Instead, Sampson has had his model season -- 12.2 rebounds, four blocks and 2.5 steals a game -- while trying to get his weight back to 210, fighting constant colds and sinus problems. "I'm getting there slowly," said Sampson, who has only been significantly outplayed by one center in his life, Maryland's Buck Williams twice last season; the terps won both.

"We're looking forward to playing Buck," said Sampson, smiling, and proud of the shiner around his left eye that came from a Carolina finger. "I have to play strong. I can be as strong as he is. I may not look it, but I can be."

A year ago, neither Sampson nor Virginia looked as strong as the reputation they had been given, almost gratis, by their college basketball world. Now, they seem stronger all the time. If the Cavaliers can escape from a defeat on the home court of their toughest ACC rival -- Maryland -- then worry-wart Holland and his team may have to begin to worry in earnest about the burdens of being undefeated and on the doorstep of No. 1.