FAYETTEVILLE, ARK., FEB. 8 -- Like this simple, friendly town that houses them, the Arkansas Razorbacks are a team without concern for pretenses.

There was a time when basketball coach Nolan Richardson worried about what those on the outside thought of him and his work, an uncertain period when he tried desperately to make his program look as well-regimented as Indiana's or North Carolina's. But those days left Richardson's life during the soul-searching that followed his daughter's death four years ago -- and the innards of Barnhill Arena have been filled with nothing but straight talk and down-home sincerity ever since.

"With us, what you see is definitely what you get," Richardson said. "We don't worry about our image, or making sure we say the right things, or what people are saying about us. I've tried to make sure of that. . . . When we look good, it's because we are good, not because we've talked people into thinking we're good. I am a believer in being genuine."

So there will be no role-playing for the second-ranked Razorbacks as they prepare for Sunday's showdown here against No. 1 Nevada-Las Vegas, a game that has become as eagerly awaited as virtually any in college basketball history. Richardson and his players aren't viewing themselves as the nation's last, best hope to keep the imposing Runnin' Rebels from an undefeated season, nor are they taking a nobody-thinks-we-can-win motivational stance.

They say what they think -- bluntly, matter-of-factly, often humorously. And they think, apparently with quite a bit of conviction, that they're going to win.

"When most teams play Vegas, they look at the 'UNLV' on their jerseys and they're scared; they don't want to be playing UNLV," said Arkansas forward and leading scorer Todd Day. "We won't be like that. We can't wait to play them. It's just like Coach told us: 'We're just going to give them an old-fashioned street fight.' And we're confident that we'll be the ones still standing in the end."

The fight analogy works well around here these days, for this matchup is drawing fanfare reminiscent more of a heavyweight championship bout than a regular season basketball game. Scalpers are asking for as much as $1,000 per ticket, and Arkansas students have been camped out in tents in front of Barnhill (a phenomenon now known among the locals as "Barnville") for a week to assure the best seats when the gates finally open Sunday morning.

Razorbacks officials have received nearly 100 requests for media credentials and, already having gotten the approval of the fire marshal to sit some of the crowd spillover in the aisles, they expect to break the arena attendance record of 9,486. Barnhill has 54 seats for reporters and an official capacity of 9,000.

According to members of the Rebels' entourage, Coach Jerry Tarkanian wanted to move his team from its hotel because his assigned room doesn't have ESPN, but he was told there isn't a single vacancy left in town. UNLV officials are miffed about receiving just 70 tickets for the game, that after Arkansas was allotted 240 for last season's meeting between the clubs in Las Vegas (won by the Rebels, 101-93).

And, in deference to Tarkanian, the official T-shirt slogan for the game -- as seen virtually everywhere on the streets today -- has become: "Battle at The Barn: Sharks Don't Bite." Other than UCLA-Houston (Lew Alcindor vs. Elvin Hayes) in 1968 and perhaps Georgetown-Virginia (Patrick Ewing vs. Ralph Sampson) in 1982, longtime followers of the game have been hard-pressed to come up with a regular season game preceded by as much hype.

It's a clash of seemingly unyielding forces. UNLV is 19-0, with a 30-game winning streak and an average margin of victory this season of nearly 33 points. The Rebels have size, speed and unrelenting defense; they have all-American forwards Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon. And they have a one-year reprieve from the NCAA Committee on Infractions that could enable them to become the first repeat national champions since UCLA in 1972-73.

If it passes Sunday's test, UNLV may be on its way to the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1976. But Arkansas (23-1) is loaded too, with silky-smooth Day and take-charge point guard Lee Mayberry, with a 20-game winning streak and with an offense averaging just under 100 points to supplement the type of scrappy, chest-to-chest full-court defensive pressure Richardson always has embraced.

"It's been an incredible buildup," Richardson said. "It started about eight games ago. I thought we might never get here. . . . It's been difficult for our kids, the whole countdown thing. I think they've been starting to get a little tight lately. The hoopla can really hurt you, but it can help us now."

Indeed it can, for these are the types of games Richardson promised his ambitious program would bring to Fayetteville when he arrived six years ago. The pairing once didn't seem so perfect: He went 12-16 and 19-14 in his first two seasons and was booed lustily at Barnhill; his predecessor, Eddie Sutton, had been quite successful (and popular) with a more deliberate style.

Richardson's 16-year-old daughter, Yvonne, died from leukemia in January 1987. She had been diagnosed as having the disease when her father was ready to make the jump here from Tulsa two years earlier, and he had been ready to forget the move; but she wouldn't allow it, and she reassured him continuously through the tough times at Arkansas that he'd get the job done.

His experience with Yvonne steeled Richardson, reaffirming his conviction to do things his way. He began to get his type of running, pressing players, and the program went on the upswing. Last season's Razorbacks made the school's first Final Four appearance in 12 years, falling to Duke in an NCAA semifinal.

This season promises even more. Day has become one of the country's most versatile and unstoppable offensive forces, with a 22.3 scoring average. Mayberry does precisely what's needed -- as in Thursday night's 81-74 win at Houston, when he went scoreless until getting a followup layup and a three-pointer to key a 15-0 burst in the final seven minutes that overcame a four-point Cougars lead.

The third of Richardson's junior "triplets," center Oliver Miller, trimmed much of a still-considerable gut during the offseason and has made a startling 76 of 102 shots over the past 10 games to raise his field goal accuracy to 70.5 percent. Stocky senior guard Arlyn Bowers cut his weight-room hours to improve his jump shot and has become a saving grace, and junior college transfer Isaiah Morris is providing eight points and four rebounds per outing as a solid fifth starter.

Thursday's triumph left Arkansas 10-0 in the Southwest Conference, putting the Razorbacks well on their way to fulfilling their goal of going undefeated in the league in their final season before bolting for the Southeastern Conference. Even Arkansas's only defeat -- 89-77 to Arizona in the preseason NIT, a game in which the Razorbacks were unnerved by second-half technical fouls on Miller and Day -- was a valuable learning experience.

"We're much more mature than we were last season, even than we were a few months ago," Day said. "We know how to channel our aggressiveness better. Coach made sure of that after the Arizona game."

Richardson has a reputation as a disciplinarian, yet his program does not resemble a totalitarian regime. He's close to many of his players -- particularly Mayberry, who grew up in Tulsa shooting baskets in Richardson's driveway and has a sister married to the coach's son. Day and Miller are more-than-willing interview subjects.

"As long as it doesn't become negative or abusive, they can say what they want," Richardson said. "A lot of times they use that stuff to pump themselves up."

As if to prove that point, Miller was in top form during a half-hour stream of observations following the Houston game. Here's a sampling:

On UNLV's aura of invincibility: "I don't know why it's like that. They're men just like we are. They have two legs just like we do. Hopefully they wear underwear just like we do."

On the attention surrounding the matchup: "You can't even go to the bathroom without having someone next to the john saying, 'What do you think about Vegas?' I just flush the toilet so I don't have to listen."

And on the teams' relative caliber of competition: "Vegas hasn't played top 25 teams. We've played top five teams. If you look at the teams in their conference, you don't really know them. It's like Fresno State, Fullerton something or other. . . . I saw them play Louisville {on television}. Louisville's no big deal. I saw them play Princeton. Princeton's no big deal; they just play half-court. . . . I don't feel Vegas can stick with us."

It doesn't come across as arrogance as much as playfulness. The Razorbacks don't take matters too far: Mayberry, for instance, regularly contends that Kenny Anderson is the nation's top point guard. "Coach makes sure we have a good perspective on things," Day said.

With Richardson, it always comes back to one very somber thing; it can only come back to one thing. Late on Thursday, with the arena nearly cleared and the Houston game fading into memory, he sorted through a lifetime of many highs: a wonderful college basketball career under legendary coach Don Haskins at Texas Western, a season apiece of playing professional football and basketball, a productive and ever-more-gratifying coaching run.

People no longer ask him in airports if he's John Thompson; recruits welcome him into their living rooms as a celebrity of the trade.

And then Richardson put it all back into perspective.

"I think back to my little baby girl," he said. "She told me before she left this earth, 'Daddy, you're going to turn this thing around, you're going to win this race.' Well, I'm still behind in the race. I got a late start. And when you're behind in the race, you have to run a little faster than the guy in front of you.

"I'm happy with what we've accomplished. I'm not satisfied. There's still more work to be done, and we're still hungry."