When a major college team in a basketball-conscious state has an 18-1 record, including 17 victories in a row, it usually also has a place in the national top 20.

At West Virginia, however, recognition from America's coaches and sportswriters has come slowly. The Mountaineers, 1981 National Invitation Tournament semifinalist, only this week made the top 20: 18th in the Associated Press poll and 19th in United Press International's.

"I look at some of the teams in the top 20, and I see teams that West Virginia could beat," said Rhode Island Coach Claude English. "If West Virginia (were) in the Big East, there's no doubt in my mind they would be ranked higher. They're as good as or better than any team in the Big East."

Perhaps it is appropriate that the basketball team be taken as lightly as some take the state. So when Coach Gale Catlett recruits, he sells the university without the lip service on which some coaches have built reputations.

"I don't do much talking. Instead, we invite the players and parents of players we're recruiting down for a weekend," Catlett said. "They probably think they'll end up in the middle of nowhere until they see where they are and the facilities we can offer. We've got probably the best athletic facility in America."

Morgantown, home of the Mountaineers, is in the north central part of West Virginia. The town's main industry is the university, yet, curiously, there are few West Virginians on Catlett's roster. Jeff Schneider, a two-time high school player of the year, left the state for Virginia Tech; Jimmy Miller, last year's best, for Virginia.

Ten of Catlett's 12 players, including sophomore Tim Kearney, center from Marshall High in Falls Church, are from out of state.

"We try to recruit within a 300-mile radius, and so far we've been pretty successful at it," Catlett said. "Why change?"

West Virginia, which plays at George Washington Saturday in a key Eastern Eight Conference game, has become a victim of its success within the conference. Defeating Rutgers (twice), Pittsburgh and Duquesne, considered among the Eastern Eight elite, has done little to improve the team's image in the national eye.

West Virginia has beaten Virginia Tech, Ohio State and South Alabama. Marshall dealt the loss, 91-78, the second game of the season.

With four players averaging more than 10 points a game, opponents have been unable to key on Greg Jones, the quick point guard from Youngstown, Ohio, who is the team's leading scorer with a 15.2 average.

No starter is taller than 6 feet 9, leading Catlett to note, "Ralph Sampson would definitely help." But Rhode Island's English spotted another flaw and exploited it. Others are catching on.

"They didn't show me they have a guy who can shoot consistently from 20 feet. Jones is more of an open-court, rhythm-type shooter," English said. "So in the second game we played a lot of zone and tried to eliminate their transition game." It almost worked. The Rams deterred but did not derail West Virginia, losing, 59-57.

Since then, Pitt tried that tactic and lost, 48-45. So did South Alabama.

Catlett is proud that, "After this year, 11 of our last 12 seniors will have graduated," he said. "We want our players to realize you have to be a good young man, go to class, behave yourself."

Diego McCoy, who came out of Spingarn High and was the Mountaineers' top shooting guard, didn't. Arrested and fined in the theft of a jacket from a book store last December, he was suspended before transferring to Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee.