All right, maybe this No. 1 stuff isn't so bad after all. Or so says the Virginia women's basketball team, which wasn't sure what to expect when it was voted the nation's best team in the preseason.

While the top billing excited the Cavaliers, no one was quite sure how the added pressure would affect a team that is still relatively young despite last season's 29-6 record and the program's first Final Four appearance.

But after rolling to an 8-0 start that includes road victories over perennial powerhouses Texas and Old Dominion, the Cavaliers seem to have found comfort atop the polls.

"It's really no different, to be honest," Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan said. "If you take a different perspective, you become uptight. . . . It's enjoyable being here. The attention has been fun. But it's not like we don't know tomorrow it could change."

But looking at the Cavaliers' upcoming schedule and their level of play thus far, it may not change for awhile. Virginia is outscoring opponents by an average margin of more than 38 points a game and has nine players scoring more than five points a game. It has a rebound margin of 7.7 per game, has made 146 steals and is holding opponents to 33 percent shooting.

"Defensively, we're much, much quicker" than last year, said guard Tammi Reiss, who is averaging 14.8 points, 4 assists and 2 steals. "We're able to press and put a lot of pressure on people. Last season we weren't a good half-court press team."

Although the Cavaliers have beaten underwhelming opponents like St. Peter's, Virginia Tech and Lafayette, their performance on the tough road trip to Texas and Old Dominion indicated they'll be tough to beat. In Austin, Tex., on Dec. 1, they opened an early lead and beat the 20th-ranked Longhorns, 80-74, before 8,844. Last season, crowds of that size flustered Virginia.

"I thought that we gained a lot from that game, not only from the game but the atmosphere," Ryan said. "Their crowd is very vocal and very hostile and we responded very well to every situation we faced."

"It was tremendous to walk into that building," Reiss said. "You could feel the tradition. But I don't think the crowd had any effect on our performance. We're just happy for people to show up at the games whether they boo or cheer."

Three nights later in Norfolk against the rebuilding Monarchs, the Cavaliers found themselves in a close game early. But then Virginia's press went to work.

"By the time I looked up, we were up 30, 40 points," Reiss said. "We couldn't believe it."

"The game was like 24-22 and all of a sudden, it was out of hand," Ryan said. "It was really a weird thing. . . . I didn't even realize it was happening."

What was happening was an remarkable 30-0 run. By the time it ended, the Monarchs not only were stunned, but hopelessly behind. By the time the 90-49 drubbing was over, each school had set records: the Cavaliers with 26 steals; the Monarchs with 38 turnovers.

The press is spearheaded by what many think is the nation's best backcourt: Reiss and all-American Dawn Staley, who is averaging 15 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 4.3 steals. The sizable frontcourt is led by 6-foot-5 sophomore Heather Burge (10.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and her identical twin, Heidi (8.5, 7.1).

But the key to the team's fast start may be the play of senior forward Tonya Cardoza, their second-leading scorer in 1988-89. After serving an academic suspension last season, many were unsure whether Cardoza could adapt to not being the focal point of the offense. But so far she's been everything Ryan hoped, averaging 14.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 4.2 steals.

"She was with {Reiss and Staley} for a year before she left," Ryan said. "They've just been waiting for her. She's somebody who has made a difference in our program, and now, she's making even more of an impact."

Another plus has been the surprising play of junior forward Melanee Wagener, who played sparingly a year ago but has started five games this season, averaging six points and 4.3 rebounds. Depth has not been a problem, with sophomore guard Dena Evans capably backing up Reiss and Staley and Audra Smith and Tekshia Ward helping out up front.

In fact, Ryan's only worry may be the quality of the schedule to this point. Of their eight victims, only Texas is likely to qualify for the NCAA tournament. And ahead looms the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, which means two meetings apiece with No. 2 North Carolina State, No. 19 Clemson and Maryland.

But for now, Reiss said the team will continue to deal with the pressure the way it knows best. "We're having fun, just like last year," Reiss said. "{Ryan is} a players' coach and a good people person and someone you can trust. In turn, she trusts you and you can see that on the court."