Johnny Dawkins saw five bodies about to collide underneath the basket and winced. The skinny guard from Duke University via Mackin High School in the District of Columbia was standing at the top of the key and glad to be there.

"These national teams from around the world are more physical than the team from the United States," Dawkins said, referring to the international basketball rules that allow for a more bruising game. "Our big men aren't used to being knocked around in their leagues back at home. It's something they're getting used to in a hurry."

Indeed, with the noticeable exception of the expansive Charles Barkley, the U.S. team's biggest obstacle in winning the gold medal here in the World University Games may be its lack of muscle across the front line.

Kevin Willis, a 7-footer from Michigan State, made 12 of 19 shots from the field Friday night to lead the United States to an 88-70 exhibition victory over Great Britain and seemingly ease the need for up-front power. But with Canada, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Brazil fielding teams that are capable of being brutish around the basket, U.S. Coach Norm Stewart doesn't want his athletes taking anything for granted.

Anyone remotely familiar with amateur basketball here is picking the United States to make it to the semifinals, especially with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union team. The Americans, after all, won all five exhibitions they played and defeated Peru, 134-25, in their first offical game tonight.

In the mismatch, the U.S. team was led by Devin Durrant, the 6-foot-7 forward from Brigham Young. Durrant made all 11 field goal attempts and one free throw for 23 points. In 17 minutes of play, Durrant, one of eight Americans to score in double figures, made no turnovers. Bernard Thompson of Fresno State made eight of 10 shots and grabbed six rebounds, and Dawkins made six of seven from the field.

Peru, which lost to Lebanon earlier today, made only 12 of 58 field goal attempts. Peru had no starter taller than 6 feet 4.

Stewart is not bothered by all the talk about the Americans being favored. "I think that sentiment is expected," Stewart said this afternoon. "Not for the coach, however."

Stewart is also aware that slower teams, like Canada and Yugoslavia, can look at the U.S. squad and see there isn't much bulk. Besides Willis, who weighs only 220, the regular front-line players are Ed Pinckney, the 6-10, 185-pound forward from Villanova; 6-6, 190-pound Bernard Thompson from Fresno State; 6-10, 200-pound Greg Cavener of Missouri, and 6-10, 210-pound Andre Goode from Northwestern.

The man they all look to for a few elbows, knees, thighs--whatever--is Auburn's Barkley, who stands 6-6 and weighs about 260. While many Canadians have heard of such East Coast players as Pinckney and Dawkins, few had heard of Barkley until Friday night. But he established a reputation a few minutes into the exhibition when a player from Great Britain committed a foul, then found himself airborne as Barkley--he of a thousand nicknames, including the Muffin Man--soared with the defender on his back for the one-handed slam dunk.

"Apparently, the roughness and international rules haven't bothered them so far," Stewart said. "We aren't real sharp right now. But a good sign (in the exhibition) was that some of our different combinations (Karl Malone, Jay Humphries, Cavener and Goode) came in and increased the lead from five points to 15 or 16."

The U.S. team got a fright in the second half of the exhibition when Goode sprained his ankle and missed the rest of the game. Goode's performance has become more crucial since Keith Lee, the all-America center from Memphis State, returned home to be with his mother, reported seriously ill.

With many of America's best and most experienced swimmers not competing here, Coach Sam Freas worried earlier this week that the United States would have difficulty earning medals. But Larry Hayes won a gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle tonight, setting a Universiade record of 1:51.19, which broke a mark he had set earlier in the day.

Hayes, from UCLA, was fourth going into the final 50 meters, but in a strong finish passed Alexei Filonov of the Soviet Union and Alex Baumann of Canada.

Tammy Thomas, from the University of Kansas, won the bronze in the women's 100-meter freestyle. Christy Woolger of the University of Florida took the bronze in the 400-meter individual medley, finishing behind Irina Gerasimoza of the Soviet Union, whose time of 4:52.27 set a Universiade record and is the fifth-best in the world.

The United States women's basketball team, led by Joyce Walker (26 points) and Lori Scott (22 points), beat Hong Kong, 134-23. The United States women's volleyball team beat France, three games to one, and the men's volleyball team beat Lebanon by default.