Before Saturday's game at North Carolina, Ralph Sampson was asked what tempo he would prefer against the Tar Heels.

"Doesn't matter," Sampson shrugged. "I can play any tempo."

Would he prefer a half-court game or a full-court game?

"I can play either way."

But if you had a choice?

The Virginia center smiled. "If I have a choice," he said, "I'm happier playing a full-court game."

Ralph Sampson has been quite happy this year.

Virginia is 12-1 and ranked third nationally going into tonight's 8 o'clock game in Charlottesville against Maryland (WJLA-TV-7). The Cavaliers run whenever they can and often when they can't. That is why they are beginning to whisper at Virginia that this team may be better than last year's, which was 29-4 and went to the final four.

When he first arrived at the University of Virginia in September 1979, Sampson was unsure of his role as a player. He knew great things were expected of him as a 7-foot-4 player who, as Dean Smith put it, "can run and jump." The implication was that most guys that size do neither.

But Virginia was a good team with a star, Jeff Lamp, and a near-star, Lee Raker. Both were juniors, both played their best basketball at a slow, walk-it-up pace with which the team was comfortable. Coach Terry Holland, sensitive to the attention Sampson attracted, wasn't about to change his team's style for him.

So Sampson was assimilated. His abilities are such that he was a force as a freshman and dominant as a sophomore. But now, Lamp and Raker are gone. So are many of Sampson's insecurities about being the star. There is no doubt about who is the No. 1 man now, no question about where the limelight will shine.

And, with players like Othell Wilson, Craig Robinson, Ricky Stokes, Jeff Jones, Tim Mullen and Jim Miller playing supporting roles, the Cavaliers are a team that strives to create a full-court game. They are more comfortable that way and so is Sampson.

"When Ralph first got here I think everyone was afraid of stepping on his toes because we had heard what a private person he was," Jones said. "We were all being so careful and he was very unsure of himself and what his role should be. I think it took us almost until the end of the season to feel each other out and start to feel comfortable. That was when we started playing well--after everyone had given up on us."

Virginia struggled Sampson's first year, losing in the first round of the ACC tournament for a 19-10 record, not good enough for the NCAA tournament. The NIT seemed almost like a slap in the face, but the Cavaliers finally relaxed those five games and won the tournament.

Last year, with everyone more relaxed and comfortable, the team played well from the beginning, winning its first 23 games. This season, with Lamp and Raker gone, even with Sampson back, a slight retrenchment was expected.

But Holland has done more in his eight years at Virginia than recruit Sampson. He has built a solid program and he had an excellent recruiting year last winter, signing six players, most notably Mullen and Miller.

Mullen, a 6-5 forward, chose Virginia largely because of Lamp. "What I liked was the way Jeff played but also the player he became while he was here," Mullen said. "I'd like to think in four years, I could be somewhat like him."

Miller admits being influenced by Sampson's presence. "I'm sure someday I'll tell my grandchildren I played with Ralph," he said. But he also was confident he would be playing on a good team after Sampson left.

That is a measure of how far the Cavaliers have come under Holland, who has a record of 146-75 at the school. Although Sampson is still the unquestioned hub, this is a program in which teams won 20 games each of the two years prior to his arrival and expect to win 20 after he departs, whether this year or next.

"A lot of people thought when Jeff and Lee left that the only guy who could score was Ralph," Wilson said. "But J.J. (Jones) and I can score. It's just that last year that wasn't our role. We were limited. We were supposed to get the ball to Jeff, Lee and Ralph."

Wilson smiled beatifically. "Now, it's different. We can show what we can do. This team runs. We all like to play the full-court game."

It also plays much more aggressively on defense and it looks to Sampson for leadership on the court and off. Sampson no longer has to worry about usurping publicity from the older players. Now, he is one of them.

The team, which includes five freshmen, is much looser than last year's. This is a team of nicknames. The starting five consists of Stick (Sampson), C.R. (Craig Robinson), J.J. (Jones), The Big O (Wilson) and one-third of the 3M-Company (Mullen). The other two-thirds are Miller and Dan Merrifield. When Ricky Stokes comes off the bench, he and Wilson are the Blitz Brothers.

This is also a closer team than last year's. "This team hangs out together a lot more," Jones said. "It's different now because Ralph and I are the only ones left who are really serious about the basketball. I don't mean the others aren't serious about what we do, but, at least right now, they aren't thinking about it as the next step in their lives."

Holland, who at 40 seems to have grown into the role of big-time, in-the-spotlight coach, is aware of the different character of this team. He likes it, but also sees pitfalls.

"They are a looser group, but they also go from loose to really tight much quicker than last year's group," he said. "This group fluctuates emotionally. Last year we were always solid, always at that same level, regardless of the situation."

That difference was apparent Saturday when the Cavaliers, even with Sampson getting 30 points and 19 rebounds, couldn't hold a nine-point lead in Chapel Hill. A year ago, they came from 16 down in the same building to win. But this team is learning.

"I think before we're through, we could be the best team in the country," Sampson said. "I'm not going to put us down because we lost one game. There are a lot more to play."

Holland admits he has been surprised by how well the Cavaliers have played.

"We just have to learn from this and get better," he said. "I suspect we will."