Houston huff: "We're No. 1."

In the NCAA?

"The NBA Midwest."

Jim Valvano had been trapped among some cocky Cougars late Saturday.

"I'm doing a television interview and they're pointing at me and yelling: 'You . . . You . . .You," like I'd just fouled out," the North Carolina State coach said today. "Brent (Musburger) was just smiling his brains out; they were going: 'You're next . . . You're next . . . You're next.'

"It was like a Mafia meeting."

Funny, but the State players are not acting as though they expect to be terminally clawed by halftime of the NCAA final Monday night. It's a familiar theme, merely exaggerated because Houston soared among the clouds in flying by very good Louisville in the semifinals.

"I don't think we're being taken as seriously as we should be," Sidney Lowe insists. "But we've been facing that the last couple of weeks--and still managed to win. I can understand that. If we win, they don't have to call us champions.

"We'll know."

Lots of us are convinced the Cougars are going to win; a few of us believe State is close to the only team in the country capable of making them work for it.

Hard.

I'm not as certain as Sidney about divine intervention here in University Arena (a.k.a. The Pit); after watching State escape time and again from what seemed near-certain defeat the last nine games, I'm at least bright enough to air his message of Easter hope:

"God is on our side. It's our time. We've been through so much, gone through so many downs. Injuries. Disrespect. Even now, when we're going for the championship, we don't have much respect.

"It's time for some happy moments.

"God's with us. All doubters are going to have to hold their heads down."

Even the most muddle-minded mortal knows that for that to happen, State is going to have to hold the ball. The pace won't be turtle-slow, as boring as Maryland's 10-point loss to Houston in the Midwest regional; neither will necks come unswiveled from the ball being launched toward one basket one second and the other the next.

This will be basketball, not Pong.

The collective wisdom among most thinkers here is that Houston wins a game in the 70s or 80s and that State has a chance if the score is in the 50s or 60s. Valvano promised there would be no 10-7 halftime nonsense.

I think the game can be reduced to fouls: how many Houston commits and how many it makes under pressure if State keeps the game at waltz tempo. That was its most effective pace all of last year, before the shot-clock experiment, the speed at which Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey seem most comfortable.

Just for the fun of it, Bailey was asked today, would the Wolfpack players like to boogie to Houston's hectic beat?

"No," he said, quickly and emphatically.

Surprisingly, five of Houston's seven prominent players have free throw percentages well under the national average of 70. Larry Micheaux and Akeem Abdul Olajuwon actually shot better from the field than the foul line this season.

Which suggests that a tight, hand-waving zone cheating in the direction of Michael Young just might work. Most of Houston's dazzling field-goal percentages have been built on open-court speed and layups; Monday night, we will find out whether a team averaging 83 points for 33 games really can make an honest shot.

The Cougars play hard. They are very good at the sort of half-court traps that troubled State so late in the Georgia game. They will be delighted to leave open Saturday's star, Cozell McQueen, for all the passes Whittenburg can bounce his way, figuring Olajuwon will find him a delicious late-evening snack.

State won't be bashful.

"I saw some things we can take advantage of," Bailey said. "I think we can get 'em in foul trouble (three Cougars had more than 100 fouls this season). And I don't think it'll be that much trouble guarding Akeem. He isn't nearly as versatile as Ralph (Sampson). He gave us about all the intimidation you can stand for."

He paused and added:

"We can't worry about what they do, but what we need to do."

State's game is the one with the larger margin for error. Shots from 25 inches usually keep teams in playoffs far longer than ones from 25 feet.

Whittenburg has been bombing that philosophy for nearly a month.

If Drexler starts into orbit again, Whittenburg will try to shoot him back down. If Olajuwon gets the ball low, State likely will clobber him immediately, make him earn two points from the foul line instead of backing off and allowing a cinch dunk. Whether it has enough players to play bump-and-run defense only Valvano knows.

"Maybe we can catch 'em at the right time," Bailey said.

Nice theory, that: Houston might be so spent after Louisville that it will assume the major prize already has been won and overlook the plucky Pack. Cold research shows that teams that have won very tough semifinals in the last 20 years almost always have won the title.

However Monday goes, part-time thespian Bailey appreciates and understands the NCAA tournament more than most players.

"It's a show," he said, "and I'll try to make it one of the best performances of my life. I can't imagine ever playing before a larger audience. Or in a better final scene: my last college game, as well as Sidney's and Dereck's."

There are few offcourt roles for anyone 6-feet-11.

"The character I played in 'Of Mice and Men,' Crooks, had a broken back," Bailey said. "So that made me look smaller, 'cause I wasn't standing very much."

For a man so tall, he still keeps rooted to reality.

"I've been in a dream world four years," he said. "After tomorrow, it'll be back to the real world. Back to books. Being uncertain about what's ahead. After the cheering stops (and he hopes it will continue for him in the pros), I'd like to get into broadcasting. Or acting."

Do he and the other State players realize yet how good State is?

"Yes, we do," he said, still serious and honest. "I'm not sure everybody else does.