ALBUQUERQUE -- There may not be a more famous ramp in sports than the one that leads to the playing floor here in the arena known as "The Pit." It is so steeply sloped that one has to be careful not to fall head over heels when walking down it.

When a visiting team arrives at the bottom of The Ramp, it walks into a sea of red and a caldron of noise. Last month, top-ranked Arizona walked down The Ramp unbeaten and walked back up it 12-1.

Saturday afternoon as he led his Brigham Young teammates down The Ramp to face the University of New Mexico, Michael Smith heard a voice a few feet away from him. "Welcome to the Pit, Michael," the man said.

"Thank you," Smith answered with a wide grin. "It's very nice to be here."

Two hours later, Smith and BYU walked back up the The Ramp, leaving behind a lot of quiet people in red and a scoreboard that told the story: BYU 89, New Mexico 82. The seventh-ranked Cougars now have left 14 straight opponents gasping in their wake and, all of a sudden, people are noticing.

"Actually, the lack of attention doesn't bother us very much," said Smith. "I just look back at our 1984 football team. It kept winning and winning and nobody noticed and it won some more and nobody noticed. Then, when it was all over, they were No. 1."

Smith smiled. "Now, if Temple {at that time the only other unbeaten team} were to lose on Sunday and everyone put their heads together and decided to make us No. 1, then all of a sudden we'd get a lot of attention. But you know what, I'm not sure we're ready for that. It might be better for us just to go on being unnoticed."

That isn't very likely, although Temple did fall from the ranks of the unbeaten with Sunday's loss to Nevada-Las Vegas. The Cougars are 5-0 in the Western Athletic Conference, which is likely to get four NCAA bids, perhaps even five.

And the best of the conference -- which includes preseason darling Wyoming -- is BYU. The Cougars have proven that emphatically in the last 10 days by winning convincingly at Wyoming, Texas-El Paso and New Mexico. This is a team picked in no one's preseason top 20, one that only recently cracked the rankings, one its coach insists can play with anyone.

"Right now, we're playing the best basketball in the WAC," Coach Ladell Anderson said Saturday. "And, although a lot of people in the east might disagree, I think that's saying a lot. This is a great league. The only difference between our league and the ones back east is publicity.

"Last week, Wyoming loses at UTEP and New Mexico and they drop seven spots in the rankings. What people don't realize is that's as tough a road swing as there is in the country. If that happened in the Big East or the ACC, they would drop two spots, maybe."

Lack of attention is a disease easily cured by winning in March, something teams out west have failed to do with remarkable consistency this decade. While Anderson might worry about rankings and headlines, his players don't.

"We know if we keep winning, we'll get everything we could possibly want," slick-passing guard Brian Taylor said. "We take a lot of pride in being unbeaten right now. You know, every game that goes by, that zero means more and more."A Strange Success Story

The story of that zero, as with any Brigham Young team, is not like most college basketball success stories.

It starts, strangely enough, in the first seconds of BYU's offseason. Last March, having been beaten in the opening round of the NCAA tournament by New Orleans, the Cougars were heading for their dressing room, their heads down.

As they walked down the hallway, Alabama, about to take the floor for its game, was going in the opposite direction. But the Tide players weren't running, they were walking. And, as the BYU players went by, they heard this: "Tide, get ready to roll, hey Tide get ready to roll."

It was a rap-chant, the players tightly bunched, clapping their hands as they went. "It was," said Taylor, "exactly the kind of thing we needed." It may only be a symbol, but since adapting the chant to their needs -- "Coogs, get ready to roll, hey Coogs get ready to roll" -- BYU has not lost.

A rap-chant might seem an unlikely rallying cry for Brigham Young. After all, BYU is a virtually all-white, Mormon-run school. There is one black on this team, senior Jeff Chatman. Ironically, Chatman is from Alabama.

"I thought it was great to take the chant from Alabama," Chatman said. "That was the place I was dying to play when I was in high school. I would have given one of my arms to play for Alabama. But I played for a small school {Munford County} and no one noticed me."

BYU noticed him when assistant coach Roger Reid, in Birmingham in March 1984 for the NCAA tournament, saw him play one day after Chatman had watched the Cougars win their opening round game against Alabama-Birmingham. Chatman was amazed but receptive when BYU approached him. Did he worry about going to an almost all-white Mormon school?

"Not at all," he said. "I wanted to play ball and this was a big-time school offering me a chance. Since I've been here, the guys have never teased me about being the only black on the team. They're too nice to even tease about it. So, I tease them about being white."

He smiled. "Of course I'm one of them now. They converted me into a Mormon."

Chatman became a Mormon on Dec. 6. He has been busy on the court, too. He is the team's second-leading scorer behind Smith, averaging 21.3 points per game to Smith's 22.2.

Although Smith is almost 6-10, he is most effective roaming the perimeter. From there, he shoots his one-hand push shot and passes superbly, often to Chatman, who -- even though just 6-6 -- has a postup jumper that is almost unstoppable.

Smith and Chatman get plenty of help inside from senior center Jim Usevitch, who looks too slow and too small and merely pounds people. Saturday, with Smith a little off in his shooting (six for 14), Usevitch took over inside, scoring 24 points.

"I got a freshman center from Australia {Luc Longley} who can't even spell Usevitch much less guard him," said New Mexico Coach Gary Colson. "Of course, Usevitch is one of those seven-year guys they got. What is he, 29 years old?

Usevitch will be 24 in April. So will Taylor. Smith, who is 22, is a junior. Marty Haws, also 22, is a sophomore. In all, there are six players on this team who have gone on two-year missions for the Mormon Church. Athletes who go on religious missions are exempt from the NCAA's rule that limits athletic scholarships to a five-year period. For years, opponents in the WAC have complained that BYU has an unfair advantage.

"It's something I fought in my mind mentally for a long time," Colson said. "But there's nothing you can do about it. It came up at the NCAA convention a few years ago and the vote went overwhelmingly in their favor. It isn't going to change, so there's no point getting upset about it."

To the people at Brigham Young, the missions are simply part of the educational process. But in the case of this team, the players agree that the missions have played a role in their success.

"There is no question that we have a closeness on this team because so many of us have done missions," Smith said. "It gives the older guys a common ground. I know this sounds corny, but we love each other. When I go out on the court at the start of the game I turn to each of the others guys and I say, 'I love you.'

"Now, a bunch of 21- and 22-year-old guys running around saying, 'I love you,' can be taken the wrong way, I know that. But that's really the way we feel. I love playing with these guys and being part of this team."

Smith is the lynchpin of this team. He plays a lot like Duke's Danny Ferry, is an excellent passer from the perimeter, a good outside shooter and an intelligent player who sees the game well enough to make up for not being a great athlete.

He is also the team spokesman in a locker room that can match any in the country for eloquence. Smith is loquacious and funny, sincere and irreverent all at once. He can talk one minute with great sincerity about what his mission to South America meant to him and then, in the next minute, asked how he compares to Ferry, he can smile and say, "There's one big difference between the two of us -- people have heard of him."

Smith admits it bothered him a little bit when Wyoming got all the preseason attention after upsetting Virginia and UCLA last season to reach the final 16. "I wanted to call people on the phone and say, 'Hey, those guys finished tied for third in our league last year,' " he said. "But I just figured time would take care of that."A Versatile, Close Team

Time and BYU's versatility are doing that. The front line of Smith, Chatman and Usevitch is averaging a combined 59 points a game and the three-guard combination of Taylor, Haws and Andy Toolson gets the ball to them, plays tough perimeter defense and rarely turns the ball over. "This is the best team I've ever coached in terms of passing and catching the ball," Anderson said. "That may sound simple, but it's awfully important."

There is no questioning the genuine closeness among the Cougars. The other players often joke about Smith's tendency to go on at length and the three players on the team fluent in Spanish (Smith, Taylor and Toolson) sometimes talk to each other on the floor in Spanish to confuse people. Last year, the players say, that wasn't so.

"We were selfish sometimes last year," Haws said. "We had guys who just worried about getting their 20 more than they worried about winning. That isn't the case with this team. We know how good we can be and that's all we're concerned with. We know Michael and Jeff are probably going to get 20, but if they don't, they don't worry. We just all want to win. We've been together a long time and we want this year to be special."

So far, it has been just that. But winning the WAC, which now seems a lock with the three toughest road games behind them, is only a steppingstone. "We certainly don't want it to stop there," said Usevitch. "We set our goals high at the start of the season and there's no reason to change them now."

Two things seem certain: the Cougars will be in the NCAA tournament and they will not be in the West Regional, or for that matter, the Southeast Regional. That is because BYU will not play games on Sunday and those two regionals have Sunday finals.

It has been a while since BYU had to worry about the day of a regional final. In 1981, what they call in Provo "The {Danny} Ainge team" reached the East final before losing to Virginia. This team might be a little better than that.

"When I watch all those teams from back east play on television, I think to myself that they're really good," Hawes said. "But then I think about our team and I say, 'Hey, we can play with any of them.' I can't wait for the chance to prove it."

"It's going to be a lot of fun," Smith said, looking ahead. He meant that, too.