IOWA CITY, DEC. 13 -- Every basketball coach in America will tell you that rankings mean nothing in December. Their players are more honest. That's why the Arizona Wildcats had no qualms talking about how they felt about their ranking after they stunned Iowa, 66-59, here on Saturday night.

"I think it's very hard for people to get used to the idea of Arizona being in the top five, or even the top 10," forward Sean Elliott said. "I think people were looking for us to come in here and get beat to prove that beating Michigan and Syracuse was just a fluke. We would have been out of the top 10 and forgotten. Now, at the very least, we'll be in the top five for a while."

In truth, with their victories over Syracuse and Michigan in Alaska and the win over Iowa before 15,500 shrieking fans in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Arizona (7-0) deserves to be ranked No. 1. Kentucky had an impressive overtime victory over Indiana last week and a lucky win over Louisville Saturday. Rank the Wildcats high, but not as high as the western Wildcats. Pittsburgh hasn't played anyone near the top 20. Arizona has now beaten three top five-caliber teams.

"What's important is that we're playing very solid, smart basketball," said Coach Lute Olson, who in five years has rebuilt Arizona from a 4-24 record to national contender. "We're getting good play from different guys every night."

Saturday's victory was especially sweet for Olson because it marked his return to Iowa. He coached there for nine years, took the Hawkeyes to the Final Four and played a large role in the building of the gorgeous five-year-old arena here. When he left, there was bitterness, a feeling of betrayal in a state where loyalty is about the only thing considered more important than basketball.

But when he walked regally onto the floor Saturday evening, surrounded by photographers and TV cameras, the Iowa fans stood and greeted him warmly. It was a classy and touching moment.

"I was really moved by the way the people reacted," Olson said. "They were probably a lot kinder than they needed to be."

The game was hardly a classic. Both teams rely on defense and each had trouble doing much offensively. Iowa didn't score for more than five minutes and trailed only 4-0. "I was beginning to think we might have a scoreless first half," Olson said. "Both teams were really tight."

After 10 minutes, it was 9-3, and at halftime both teams were shooting 30 percent. Arizona finally wore the Hawkeyes down in the second half with its experience and superb defense. The Wildcats never seem to be out of position, especially inside.

Arizona has an all-America in the 6-foot-8 Elliott, two solid inside players in Anthony Cook and Tom Tolbert and perhaps the nation's smartest back court in seniors Craig McMillan and Steve Kerr. The latter has come back from reconstructive knee surgery after tearing his right knee up during the 1986 world championships in Spain. His intelligence and leadership are clearly the key for this team. "Without Steve," Olson said, "we can't beat any of these teams."

With Kerr, the Wildcats have all the ingredients to be the first West Coast team since UCLA in 1980 to be a legitimate national contender. They should rip through the weak Pacific-10 undefeated. Saturday, Olson was asked if he considered Arizona's victory a blow for the Pac-10. In answering, he took a not-so-subtle swipe at UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard, who has complained often about the Pac-10 being ripped unfairly.

"I've said in our league meetings that we should all stop talking about not being given credit and do our talking on the court," Olson said. "It doesn't do any good to go around chirping about not getting credit. We should just go out on the floor and play. If we do, the rest will take care of itself." Rivers Needs a Rest

Memo to Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps: Like it or not, you have to rest David Rivers. Saturday, after 34 brilliant minutes, Rivers ran out of gas. The result was the Irish blowing a 59-51 lead and losing, 73-69, in overtime to De Paul. Rivers didn't score in the last 6:10 of regulation and had three critical turnovers down the stretch. It's not his fault; he's being asked to do too much . . .

In case you were wondering why Arizona-Iowa wasn't on network TV, the answer is demographics. Saturday, ABC's main game was UCLA (Los Angeles)-St. John's (New York) a game that belonged on national TV about as much as "Supertrain." NBC had De Paul (Chicago) -- Notre Dame (America). And CBS had the ballyhooed Kentucky-Louisville rivalry. It makes ratings sense, if not basketball sense.

Speaking of Kentucky, you may have noted that the NCAA nailed Cleveland State for two years of probation, mostly because of violations involving Manute Bol, who never played for the school. It now has been 26 months since the Lexington Herald-Leader quoted 26 Kentucky players on the record as saying they took payoffs while at the school. Kentucky's presence on national TV is worth lots of ratings points and lots of dollars to the NCAA. The Upset Pick

The Upset Pick had a tough week. Loyola Marymount got drubbed by Oregon State and Rhode Island faded against Temple after 32 tough minutes. The record is 1-3. This week: Louisiana State finds a way to beat Georgia Tech in Atlanta. And Iowa State, tough at home, wins a wild one over Iowa. Love those intrastate rivalries.