One day before facing the nuclear Houston Cougars, North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano turned toward the detente of comic relief.

He spent the day plotting and explaining how he and his team plan to stay alive through Monday night, when N.C. State faces seemingly unbeatable Houston at 9 o'clock EST here in University Arena for the NCAA championship.

Valvano's humor has been the joy of this tournament, and he did not withdraw today--first marveling at the wondrous abilities of Houston, then confidently stating that his team, led by seniors Dereck Whittenburg, Thurl Bailey and Sidney Lowe, has played well against No. 1 teams before.

And all the while, Valvano kept them laughing.

Valvano was asked at a morning press conference if he planned to stall the entire game against a Houston team (31-2) that has proven peerless when the style is runnin' and jammin'.

"Put it this way," Valvano said. "We're gonna practice from 2 o'clock until 4 today, and we aren't gonna take a shot until 3:30.

"Shall I say, we'll play a slower tempo?" he said, moving into his monologue. "If we get the tap, we may take a shot Tuesday morning. Houston's shots (dunks) should only count for one point and Whitt's should count for three."

A straight man asked if Valvano would like to see a shot clock in this game.

"Sure, I'd love a clock for this game--about an eight-minute clock."

Then Valvano looked over at Lowe, Whittenburg and Bailey, the capital connection, and said, "You guys want to run and gun? Just let me know. Whatever you say."

Whittenburg said he thinks State's chances will be pretty good if "we hit our perimeter shots."

"What 'we' are you talking about?" Valvano asked. "Hey, Sid. Who's gonna take all the outside shots?"

Valvano put humor aside just long enough to promise he would not really try to stall away the game.

"We need to control the tempo and get pressure on every shot they take," Valvano said. "We've got to control the game. And our guards (Whittenburg, Lowe and Terry Gannon) have done that all year long. But we're not going to put it away, I'm telling you that right now. A game in the 50s and 60s--that's tempo for us. It won't be a 12-8 affair. This is a national championship final. We're not gonna do that."

With all the talk of Houston superiority, it should be noted that the Cougars' most recent loss, 26 straight victories ago, came to another team from the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Cougars lost, 72-63, on Dec. 16 to Virginia, which played without Ralph Sampson, who had the flu.

"We laid down and played dead in Japan," said Houston guard Reid Gettys. "We were psyched up all season to play Ralph. We looked at the schedule before the season and Larry Micheaux and Akeem Olajuwon couldn't wait to play Ralph.

"Then, when he didn't come out during introductions, it was like somebody stuck a needle in us."

"Akeem and the big guys didn't even want to play," said guard Alvin Franklin."

The Cougars promise that won't happen against N.C. State.

"We realize that if we sit back and play a zone, they can outshoot us," said guard Michael Young. "We have to play man to man on defense, and go inside every single play on offense. But that's our game, anyway, so we just have to do what we've always been doing."

Houston Coach Guy Lewis said today he didn't want to talk strategy. He did admit, though, that N.C. State reminds him of Southwest Conference opponent Texas Christian, which lost three games to the Cougars this year, once by eight points and twice by three. . "That ought to spell trouble," Lewis said.

Valvano realizes that anything less than a near-perfect performance will mean trouble for his team (25-10), which is trying to become the first in tournament history to win the title with double-digit losses. One-liners aside, Valvano already has gotten that message across to his players.

"I want them to know this is a game where they have to be very careful and do good things over a long period of time," Valvano said. "You have to be excited. You have to dream."