Two years ago, most folks thought the idea of the Southern Utah basketball team moving to Division I was crazy at best.

No one's questioning the sanity of the Thunderbird program these days.The T-Birds survived their first two Division I seasons quite nicely and this year have been ranked as the preseason No. 4 independent team in the country by Street and Smith's, college basketball's bible. That's an honor Southern Utah might not have received a dozen years ago before most schools joined a conference. But there are still 17 independents in the country, so No. 4 isn't bad.

"It's nice to be recognized as one of the better independents in the country," said SU Coach Neil Roberts. He believes last year's 97-90 win at Xavier, which was Xavier's only loss for half the season, has a lot to do with his team's new-found respect.

Southern Utah kicks off its 1990-91 season, one that Roberts has been looking forward to ever since he arrived in Cedar City four years ago, tonight against Northeast Illinois in the Centrum.

"Two years ago we started off with a bunch of young players and those players have now grown up," he said. "We also had a good recruiting year, but we recruited a more mature athlete out of junior colleges, so our team will be substantially better."

The T-Birds will put a veteran squad on the floor with two seniors, 10 juniors and one freshman on the roster.

Leading the way are co-captains William Allen and Richard Barton. Allen, a 6-6 forward out of Chicago and College of Eastern Utah, led the T-Birds in scoring (17.9) and rebounding (9.0) last season.

The 6-9 Barton is a local product, who played at Cedar City High. He averaged 15.8 points a game, shooting 50 percent from the field and 80 percent from the line.

Other starters back include Peter Johnson, a 6-3 senior from Hawaii, DaVor Marcelic, a 6-7 junior from Yugoslavia and Wade Wyatt, a 6-4 junior guard from Pocatello, who played his freshman season at the University of Utah. Marcelic is slated to start at the small forward spot with Johnson and Wyatt sharing time at the shooting guard spot.

Roberts is still trying to decide on his point guard between Rick Roberts (Neil's son), who is a good outside shooter and heady player, and Rod Dixon, a quick, penetrating type of player, who transferred from Ricks after playing for Layton High.

This past summer, Roberts took eight players on a European trip that schools are only allowed to take every four years. The T-Bird group only went 1-9 playing club teams from Belgium and Holland and France, but Roberts felt his team gained valuable experience that will help it this season.

"It was good in every way," he said. "From a basketball standpoint, we accomplished exactly what we had hoped. We found out the things we can do."

With its improved team, the T-Birds have an improved schedule, much better than the one two years ago when they had to take what they could get. The T-Birds don't have any more of those nightmarish trips like the one that saw them play at Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor in a four-day span.

The T-Birds have road games against Fresno State, Arizona State and Illinois State, but for the most part they play other independents such as Chicago State, Wright State, Milwaukee-Wisconsin and Cal State-Northridge.

"The schedule is manageable," said Roberts of this year's slate. "We have a chance to get to the level we want to."

The T-Birds may be as good as any other collegiate team in the state this year, but they'll only have one chance to prove it. They play at Weber State Monday night.