FAYETTEVILLE, ARK., FEB. 9 -- Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson likes to put it this way: His Razorbacks are the second-best team in college basketball. And the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, he said, "is the second-best team in the NBA."

Problem is, the Runnin' Rebels still are competing on the collegiate level and, thanks to a one-year reprieve from the NCAA Committee on Infractions, will be eligible to defend their national championship at next month's NCAA tournament.

Given the way UNLV has stomped its first 19 opponents of the season -- by an average margin of 32.6 points, even with what Rebels Coach Jerry Tarkanian insists has been a merciful approach -- Sunday's long-awaited matchup here between top-ranked UNLV and No. 2 Arkansas is beginning to look like the country's last, best hope this season to pin a pre-tournament defeat on the Rebels.

They're being called one of the best teams ever. Their results are breathtaking, their methods perhaps even more impressive. UNLV is 19-0 and has a school-record 30-game winning streak; the Rebels have won 21 straight road contests. No opponent this season has come closer than 12 points, and UNLV has trailed for a total of just over 19 minutes (out of 760 played). The Rebels' largest deficit has been four points.

They have both bulk and speed, and their relentless defensive pressure is even more debilitating than their quick-strike offense. Their goals are clear: They want to be the game's first repeat champions since UCLA in 1972-73, and they want to be the first undefeated team since Indiana in 1976. Even the NCAA, which sent its latest letter of inquiry to the school in December, cannot interfere with that quest.

"We just take it one game at a time, and we try to win them all," said UNLV senior forward and leading scorer Larry Johnson. "This is just one more step, like any other game. But I will say this: We're not looking past Arkansas to Cal-Santa Barbara {Thursday's opponent} or anything like that."

Most of the players on both sides did their best today to downplay the significance of the game -- "it's not going to make or break our season or theirs," Razorbacks forward Todd Day said -- but the surroundings suggest otherwise.

The build-up of hysteria has neared peak levels, with the tents housing students camped out in front of Barnhill Arena numbering close to 100 by this afternoon (leading Arkansas center Oliver Miller to say: "I don't know why you'd camp out for a week when you can go home and watch the game on your couch"). An advertisement in a local newspaper today offered a 10-year-old used car, with two tickets to the game thrown in, for $3,100.

UNLV has been No. 1 for the past 12 weeks, with Arkansas (23-1 and on a 20-game winning streak) No. 2 for the last nine. The two clubs were Nos. 1 and 2 on every ballot in the most recent Associated Press top 25 poll. "I don't think there's any doubt we're the two best teams in the country," said Rebels guard Anderson Hunt, who had six three-pointers and 28 points in UNLV's 101-93 victory over the Razorbacks last season at Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.

When CBS approached Richardson before last season about a two-year series against a high-profile opponent, he stipulated that the Razorbacks' home game would have to be held at raucous Barnhill -- where Arkansas is 176-19 over the past 17 seasons, including 61-4 in the last five -- rather than in Little Rock or Pine Bluff.

"And like a fool, I agreed," said Tarkanian, who pursued games against Oklahoma, Missouri and Temple but was turned down and left with a less-than-imposing schedule.

The Rebels had trouble just getting into town. Their flight Friday was delayed for several hours when the airplane's emergency door jammed, and they arrived late that night. The weariness apparently didn't show until this afternoon's workout, a session Tarkanian said was among the team's most listless of the season.

"We're all pretty tired," point guard Greg Anthony said. "But we'll be ready {Sunday}. There's no way we won't be ready for that game. We won't beat ourselves or let the crowd affect us. Arkansas will have to beat us."

These teams are friendly rivals, with the players having mingled before last season's game and at the Final Four. Day spent time with Johnson and Stacey Augmon during the preseason when the three were in Orlando, Fla., posing for pictures with the Playboy all-American team. Day and Augmon -- perhaps the best one-on-one defender in the college ranks -- will go head to head in what may be the day's most crucial individual match-up.

Said Johnson: "We don't dislike them. We respect them. We're a good team and we think they're a good team. But they're standing in our way."