The Memphis State Tigers would seem to have more business playing in a Tennessee schoolboy league than being among college basketball's top 20.

The fact is, many of them barely are out of their high school letter jackets, and would just as soon double-pump backdoor jams as spit. They also are ranked third in the country and giggling behind their hands all the way, because it's supposed to be a rebuilding year.

Whenever people ask what's going on down at Memphis State, the Tigers like to stick their hands behind their backs, stub their toes bashfully and shrug in their best "Who, me?" fashion. Even Coach Dana Kirk will look slightly puzzled, hunch down in his warmup suit and hitch his shoulders as he watches them turn his incessant drills into Russian ballet. Then he'll hold his palms up and tell you quite seriously, "Who would have thought?"

Not anybody when the Tigers lost three starters and four seniors from last season's 26-7 team, which was briefly ranked No. 1. That was supposed to be the banner season. Instead, this group, still in its awkward stage, has a chance to go further than any Memphis State team lately. That's saying a lot, because the Tigers have made the NCAA round of 16 the last three years.

"I never know what to expect," Kirk said. "You hope to find surprises, but you wait and see. I said, 'Golly, who's going to replace those guys?' Who would have thought? We're halfway through and I still don't know all the surprises."

The Tigers, 16-1 and leading the Metro Conference at 6-1, start a freshman at guard and sophomore at center. In addition, their top two reserves are freshmen.

The chief baby sitter is all-America Keith Lee, a 6-foot-11 forward who will be Memphis State's all-time scorer by the time he leaves. When he briefly fell beneath his 20.5-point average, he wouldn't talk to anybody and called it a slump. When he isn't slumping, he is the "Air Traffic Controller," or simply "The Franchise."

Junior forward Baskerville Holmes, perennial captain of the all-Name team and leader of the showboat squad, is next in seniority. He's the flier, called "Batman" or "Bat" for short. Or, some will tell you, "Woo-Woo," because that's what a girlfriend once whispered in his ear within hearing of the gym. "Don't call me that," he said. "I got women all over the world and one of them will crack me over the head."

Sophomore center William Bedford is the enigma. The first 7-foot player at Memphis State, he gets outrebounded by his own back court but leads the Metro in blocked shots.

And he's a money player: he missed the first six games of last season due to academic ineligibility, but returned to start when senior Derrick Phillips was injured in the last part for the season. In the NCAA tournament, he shot 66 percent, averaging over 15 points and eight rebounds, and in a loss to Houston and Akeem Olajuwon in the round of 16, Bedford scored 21.

At 5-10, Andre Turner can barely see over the scorer's table but that's okay because he's the top assist man in the conference. The only returning guard with any experience, he's "The Little General," and he acts like it. Turner is the tutor for Vincent Askew, a freshman targeted by road crowds for abuse like "Hey, Askew. Let me ask yew somethin'."

Off the bench are two more freshmen, guard Dwight Boyd and center DeWayne Bailey. So far, all have kept their poise, to the astonishment of many.

"I didn't know how it was going to be," Holmes said. "I figured the veterans would have to carry the load until the young ones came around. Instead, they've stepped in and played like they've been here for two or three years."

Despite their youth, they may have even more dazzle than last season's team.

"We're more well rounded," Turner said. "More players are able to do different things. Last year, we had role players. This year, we have flat-out athletes."

The Tigers' odd makeup seems to suit Kirk's personality. He is a backslapper who talks expressively with his hands. A volatile sort at games who likes to wander the sideline and can beat Holmes for hang time when he leaps out of his chair, he hates zone defenses because they don't move.

In his first head coaching job, he had a 17-9 record at the University of Tampa by his second season. After a five-year stint as a Louisville assistant, he took over at Virginia Commonwealth, which went 24-5 in his second year. He stayed there until 1978-79, when VCU had a 20-5 record, before taking over at Memphis State.

"My mother calls me 'The Restless Gun,' " he said.

But Kirk's traveling days could be over. A tireless self-promoter, he has built a small dynasty, turning the Tigers into such a hot ticket that the Mid-South Coliseum is being expanded to 16,500 seats.

One of the few things that has eluded him is the Final Four. Critics say that although his talent might be superior, his Xs and Os are suspect, but it's hard to fault three straight NCAA tournament appearances.

"It's not like we haven't had the opportunity," he said. "We've lost at the buzzer, we've lost in overtime. We've lost every way you can lose. But a lot of teams didn't make it that far. At least we've had a chance, and that's all I want. Just give me a chance."

Lee, for one, is counting on it. Rather than go to the National Basketball Association at the end of last season, he chose to hang around for one more run at a national championship. The consensus among the Tigers is that it's time to move up in the world.

"It's back there in a lot of our minds," Turner says. "When you go to the Sweet 16 for three straight years, you want to go that much farther. A certain amount of frustration sets in. This year we would be disappointed if we didn't go farther."