BACK IN THE mid-1960s when Neil Roberts signed up to play basketball at BYU, he was a slender, handsome schoolboy out of Cedar City, eager to see the world. In some ways little has changed in a quarter century. He is still from Cedar City, still slender, handsome and schoolboyish, and apparently still interested in seeing the world. As basketball coach at Southern Utah State College, he is taking a crash course in interstate travel.

Five weeks into SUSC's first basketball season as a Division I program, his team has not been the stuff they make movies out of. The Thunderbirds have not packed 'em in at home or made a name among the giants of the industry. Youthful exhuberance has given way to the realities of life in a brutal business.The hopeful 'Birds have beaten Northeast Louisiana, Northern Arizona and Idaho and played Weber and Wyoming reasonably close. But for the most part, they have been dribbled like a basketball, compiling a 5-8 record.

This has not come as a total surprise to Roberts, who figured he was going to have problems playing against the big boys. But once he got on the road and saw - up close and personal - some of the best Division I talent available, he had an even clearer idea. He saw that some teams had phenomenal talent and he saw that SUSC didn't. He saw things clearly enough that when called upon to compare the talent he has been seeing lately with the type he saw when he was a college player, he had a ready answer:

"Ha," said Roberts.

"Ha-ha," he added.

Then he launched into an analysis of what has come to pass since he and the Cougars monsters in the basketball market. "You tend to think you were great back then when you were in college," he said. "But once in awhile someone will pull up an old tape (film) and you see the level you were at. It wakes you up in a hurry."

Waking up in a hurry has become fairly commonplace for Roberts and the Thunderbirds. In order to get a full slate of Division I opponents this year, they set upon one of the most murderous schedules imaginable. It includes Big Sky favorite Idaho; Big West contender Santa Barbara; Final Four threat Oklahoma; rising Southwest member Texas and last year's WAC tournament champ, Wyoming.

And that's just a few of the tangible opponents. Intangible opponents included rising at 5 a.m. the day after a game, driving to an airport, flying to a new town, taking a two- or three-hour van ride to the game site, playing a game the following day, and then repeating. In one four-day span they played in Flagstaff, Santa Barbara and Laramie - none of them being places they could fly directly into. By the end of January, SUSC will have been on the road 44 of the previous 60 days.

"We've sat in a lot of airports, rented a lot of vans, covered a lot of miles," Roberts sighed.

Along the way, the Thunderbirds took their lumps. They lost Texas by 39. Lost to Santa Barbara by 33. When they got to Oklahoma they met up with Mookie Blaylock and Stacey King. "Only two of the five best players in America," said Roberts. "It wasn't a fun experience." They lost 132-64.

Blaylock put on a clinic, winging nine three pointers in 11 attempts before being taken out for mercy purposes. "That night Blaylock was the best basketball player I've ever seen," grimaced Roberts.

After the game Sooner Coach Billy Tubbs consoled Roberts by saying he won just nine games during his first year at Oklahoma.

It was also at Oklahoma where Roberts got a lesson on the fiscal as well as physical inequities of college basketball. He found that Division I Oklahoma's working capital for all sports is $14 million. Division I SUSC's is $750,000, which makes the Sooners' budget roughly 19 times the size of SUSC's.

"You like to think you are at this level, but there were some big disparities there," Roberts concluded. "There are a lot of haves and have not's in Division I. And we've been playing a lot of haves."

Since his time as a player, Roberts contends basketball has undergone a change which he calls "turning the game back to the athletes." At Oklahoma and Michigan and Illinois and Syracuse, the process is ongoing.

At SUSC they're still hoping to get some people to turn the game back to.

That leaves them to get by mostly on character and execution, which is a fairly shaky proposition. "There will always be a place for the hard worker, but that athlete has also got to have athletic ability," Roberts surmised. "You can work as hard as you want, be in position and block out, but if the other guy jumps a foot higher . . .

"It is frustrating to get the shot you want and here comes Stacey King to block it from the opposite side of the lane."

Looking at a sea of fine athletes isn't something Roberts is finished with. The Thunderbirds still have St. Mary's, Kansas State, Arkansas and New Orleans amid the remainder of the schedule.

Roberts said next year things will be markedly improved. His plan includes more experienced and more talented players and a schedule that includes more than nine home games. He hopes to be on a level with Utah, BYU, Weber and Utah State within two years.

Getting to Oklahoma's level, he said, "could take forever."

But for now, it's just a matter of surviving the grueling season without losing the big picture. His fond-est wish is that by next year, or the year after, someone will drag out the 1988-89 tapes of SUSC, and he will be able to roll his eyes and say, "Ha."