LAS VEGAS -- Their sanctuary is the basketball court, whether it be in an arena overflowing with cheers or filled simply with the squeaks of sneakers during practice at Thomas and Mack Center. Only there are they unburdened; only there are they the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, pursuers of greatness, rather than the roguish Runnin' Rebels, pursued by the NCAA, seemingly forever.

As UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian likes to say, his program is accustomed to dealing with the rigors of scrutiny and commotion. "If we didn't have some controversy, we probably wouldn't know what to do," he said. With this team, however, the stakes are higher. These players have more to gain -- and much more to lose -- depending upon how they deal with the latest firestorm.

The glitz seems unavoidable. The red carpet from the locker room, the indoor fireworks, the high rollers stationed courtside along Gucci Row -- those are the game-night concessions to the city around them.

These Rebels really are about simpler things, and their task is clear: They want to play this game better than any college team ever has played it. They want to be undefeated, leaving behind overwhelmed victims. And that requires a single-mindedness that allows no room for letters-of-inquiry or Lloyd Daniels or mounds of accusations.

All the chaos is a matter for administrators, a conflict that probably won't be resolved until the spring -- sometime after the Rebels expect to be finished making themselves the first repeat national champions since UCLA in 1972-73. Savoring the Moments

"We get out onto the court, and we don't have a care in the world," UNLV forward Larry Johnson said. "Basketball is our escape. They can't get to us on the court; no one can touch us there. . . . And it doesn't have to be a game with all the people there.

"We're even more carefree at practice, and we're probably even a better team. I'll bet we could beat some NBA teams with the way we play at practice. . . . We just like to be around each other. We've learned to savor the moments when it's just us and basketball."

It might seem out of place in the neon town, but they're telling a feel-good story around here these days. They don't talk about allegations and violations and sanctions. They speak instead of pride and loyalty.

"I know you're not supposed to say this about this program because it's not their image," said Sonny Vaccaro, the promoter and Nike guru with a myriad of connections in both the city of Las Vegas and the college game, "but this is the best group of kids I've ever been around. They're the kind of kids you'd want your sons to be."

They are bonded by their ambitions and by the hardships they have endured together. Lois Tarkanian says her husband sometimes wanders around the house with a blank stare on his face, muttering "something about how much he loves this team."

With them, Tarkanian can leave behind the unpleasantries that fill much of his time: the 13-year legal struggle with the NCAA that ended three weeks ago with UNLV's postseason ban being postponed until next season; the letter-of-inquiry that arrived last week, accusing the school of 29 new, potentially crippling violations (most centered on UNLV's 1986 recruitment of Daniels, then a New York City prep star); the many university officials and boosters who apparently have tired of the Rebels' villainous image; and rumblings that he will step down following the season.

"The kids and I really don't talk about all that stuff," Tarkanian said. "I doubt that we've spent 10 minutes since October talking about that. And if we have, that's probably nine minutes too much."

Said Johnson: "What everyone else is worried about and what people are saying about us -- that's not our fight. We have other fights to be concerned with." Picking Their Fights

The other fights aren't proving to be much of a concern. Saturday's 101-69 trampling of Florida State put the top-ranked Rebels at 5-0 and with an average margin of victory of 35.4 points. Counting last spring's NCAA title-game pounding of Duke, UNLV's closest contest in the last six outings is its 20-point win at Michigan State two weeks ago.

The Rebels average 101 points per game on 54 percent shooting and yield 65.6 points on 39 percent accuracy. Opponents are averaging 21 turnovers against the Rebels' relentless, trapping pressure. Florida State Coach Pat Kennedy followed his club's obliteration by pronouncing that no one in the country is capable of beating UNLV this season.

His players agreed. "They're just on a different level," forward Michael Polite said. "They score from inside and outside, on the fast break and in their half-court sets. They block shots and make steals, and they can jump through the roof. They're just too good."

The Seminoles were within one point of the Rebels midway through the first half, leading center Rodney Dobard to assert: "We're pretty proud of those 10 minutes." Florida State later trailed by 46.

Indeed, UNLV seems to have all the weapons. Johnson is a physical force so imposing inside that guard Anderson Hunt recalls in awed terms the first time the two met: "It was a pickup game, and I just kind of bumped into him. It was just a little bump, but my shoulder didn't stop hurting. That's when I knew he was The Man."

Fellow senior Stacey Augmon may be the nation's best individual defender and most underappreciated star -- "all the little intangible things he does are just incredible," said Georgetown Coach John Thompson, Augmon's coach on the U.S. Olympic team -- and he and Johnson likely are among the best collegiate forwards ever to play on the same team. "I can't think of two guys who were ever better together," Tarkanian said.

Hunt and point guard Greg Anthony form a quick, unyielding backcourt that complements UNLV's inside strength perfectly. Center George Ackles is an adept shot blocker-rebounder type to cover any slip-ups in the Rebels' pressure defense. And 7-foot, 265-pounder Elmore Spencer, a former high school all-American, transferred from nearby Clark County Community College last week and provided 12 points in 15 minutes in his debut.

"What they can do to you is scary. Playing them is a learning experience, and I think you'll see them giving a lot of lessons this year," said Ohio State Coach Randy Ayers, whose club was eliminated by UNLV in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament. ". . . They have a place in history waiting for them."

Yet UNLV's players insist that it is chemistry, not merely talent, that sets their team apart. "There's a real closeness here, and it's genuine," Hunt said. "We've been bonded together by all we've been through, and it'll take more than a little thing like this {current turmoil} to bring us down."

They are a fairly disparate group. Hunt was a street-wise youngster from Detroit whose mother begged Tarkanian to take her son away from the drug wars.

Johnson had a somewhat troubled youth. He spent time in juvenile homes following what he said was a brief "wild period" in which he was caught stealing a few bicycles after his family moved to a tough neighborhood in Dallas when he was 12. Now he seems as quiet and gentle a soul as his 6-7, 250-pound frame and menacing stare will allow.

Augmon is a self-proclaimed laid-back Californian and "homebody."

Hunt now is the senator-to-be. He earned his real estate license three years ago, is a vice chairman of the Nevada Young Republicans and spent last summer interning for Nevada Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich. He also renounced his scholarship (valued at more than $12,000) in September so he could continue working for the sports apparel company of which he is a part-owner and for the local real estate firm for which he is public relations representative.

Anthony found the players a lawyer who was threatening to take the NCAA to court until the moment this season's postseason ban was overturned. Despite the lure of NBA lottery-pick dollars and the promise of almost-certain NCAA sanctions, Johnson and Augmon returned to school for their senior seasons.

"I made a commitment," Johnson said. "And, besides, we want to go undefeated and repeat." The toughest remaining tests are road games at Louisville and Arkansas, but their schedule has them playing 20 games in 55 days during January and February. "It's simply ridiculous for anyone to think we're invincible," Tarkanian said.

The potential distractions will continue to mount. UNLV officials seemingly are divided on how strenuously to oppose the new allegations.

According to reports confirmed privately by school officials, the NCAA could strip UNLV of last season's championship -- as well as demand the return of more than $1 million in tournament revenue -- because a player involved in some of the allegations participated in 33 of the team's 35 victories.

Still, the Rebels pledge that they will trudge on, whether there's a dark cloud on the horizon or not.

"It's like the old saying goes: 'Live each day like it's your last,' " said Tarkanian. "You play each season, each game, like it's your last. For a lot of these kids, it is their last hurrah, at least here. They know they have a chance to do something special, and they want to seize the opportunity. I'll go along for the ride, then we'll sit back and see what the future brings."