AS MUCH AS anybody - no, make that more than anybody - Jimmy Soto typifies the University of Utah basketball team that faces either extinction or a measure of NCAA Tournament immortality Thursday against UNLV.

If the Utes are underrated, undersized and undertalented, what is Soto? They list him at 5-foot-10, which is accurate as long as he's standing on a trampoline. When he graduated from Salt Lake's Judge Memorial High School his lone out-of-state recruiting trip was to Spokane, Wash. For the Utes, he doesn't even start.And yet, he has saved the Utes from the jaws of defeat so often in their superlative 30-3 season he has become known as the team lifeguard. He is the heart of the team with a heart. Rick Majerus, the Utes' coach, says it's gotten to the point that the players want to touch Soto before they go on the court - hoping whatever he has rubs off on them.

"I feel better every day when I see Jimmy Soto and say hi to him," says Majerus. "I have never seen him down. You watch tomorrow night, before we play Vegas. He'll have a smile on."

Majerus takes additional pleasure in noting that Soto is the first Utah-raised player the coach signed after he moved to Salt Lake and took the Ute job in the spring of 1989. Upon arrival, Majerus was unsuccessful in bidding for other instate players, principally Ryan Cuff, Ken Roberts and Shawn Bradley, all Mormons who chose BYU.

"I went zip for the religion," says Majerus. "I'm lucky Soto's Catholic."

Never mind that BYU didn't want Soto. Never mind that neither did much of anyone else after the 5-8 guard finished up at Judge Memorial High in Salt lake, where he was a three-time All-State players. The only school Majerus had to outrecruit was Gonzaga University in Spokane.

"I wanted to make Utah players a priority," says Majerus. "I came in and asked, `Who's the best player in the state?' Everybody said Soto. (Roberts, Cuff and Bradley were still high school seniors). I went to Jimmy's home. I liked him right away. I liked his parents. He was real confident, I remember that."

It hadn't necessarily been one of Soto's lifelong dreams to play for the Utes, even though he grew up in the shadow of the school.

"When did I become a Ute fan?" he says. "The day I signed."

It hadn't been his lifelong dream to be a basketball player, for that matter. He didn't get serious about the sport until he got into high school, when he chose basketball over baseball because baseball was too boring. He grew up informally with the sport. He was a regular at the gym at the Elks Boy's Club next door to Derks Field, but that was about the extent of his organized training.

In high school, basketball became a natural outlet for his competitiveness, his most noticeable athletic attribute.

"I like to scratch and claw. Coach Majerus and I are alike in that way," says Soto. whose 6-point scoring average and best-on-the-team 82.7 percent free-throw shooting have been most visible this year at the end of close games. "I don't mind being the underdog."

He says this with a smile, of course, adding that Thursday's game with Nevada-Las Vegas - featuring the Utes as 20-point underdogs - isn't exactly the House of Usher to him.

"We don't have anything to fear," he says. "We don't have anything to lose. Vegas is the No. 1 team in the nation. They have great athletes. We don't. We're the underdogs. All we can do is come out and surprise people."

Which is what they've been doing all year.

"I want the ball at the end of games," says Soto. "More than anything, I like to compete. I don't think of my size or anything like that. I just think about competing."

"Jimmy Soto has a great sense of who he is," says Majerus. "He's going to have a wonderful life. He's like Richie in Happy Days. Always pleasant, always positive. He's intelligent, he's got a sense of humor, he knows what to say at the right time."

Also, he knows how to score at the right time, and how to defend, and how to pull out triumphs from disaster. It's Soto, and guys just like him, that UNLV will have to deal with if it is to get on with the business of defending its national title. No question the Rebels are not terribly worried. And no question that that's just fine with Soto and the Utes.