Three giants of college basketball and Virginia Military Institute, small in size and reputation, continue stalking the NCAA championship in the East Regional semifinals tonight at Cole Field House.

The 8:15 p.m. matchup between fifth-ranked North Carolina and No. 10 Notre Dame will be telecast nationally by NBC (WRC-TV-4) following the 6:05 opener in which 20th-ranked VMI tries to defuse third-ranked Kentucky (WDCA-TV-20).

Tonight's winners will play at 12:15 p.m. Saturday for the East championship and a berth opposite the West champion in the national semifinals March 26 in Atlanta.

According to the polls, this is the toughest regional, with three of the top 10 and the only regional with all four teams ranked in the final top 20 by the Associated Press. Kentucky, whose four national titles rank it second only to UCLA, and North Carolinaa and Notre Dame have support to advance to the final four.

And Tom Joynes, VMI athletic director, says, "If we beat Kentucky, we should be favored to win it all."

The oddsmakers give VMI, smallest shchool that plays Division I football and basketball, little chance. Kentucky is favored by 14 points; only UCLA, a 15-point pick over Idaho State, is more lopsided favorite in tonight's eight games. North Carolina rates 4 1/2 points over Notre Dame.

Kentucky and Carolina are hampered by injuries. Kentucky coach Joe Hall said that 6-foot-10 center Mike Phillips' sprained wrist) will be available, but probably will not start in favor of 6-5, 230-pound James Lee. Hall would obviously prefer to get past VMI without using Phillips and have him in good shape for either Notre Dame or Carolina.

The Tar Heels will start forward Walter Davis tonight. He missed the 69-66 first-round victory over Purdue because of a broken right index finge. His fingers will be taped together so he can play.

Carolina has lost 6-10 center Tommy LaGarde with a knee injury.

Major questions in the North Carolina-Notre Dame matchup:

Can North Carolina rebound successfully against Notre Dame, shose 11-rebound-per-game advantage led the NCAA this season?

Can the Irish react to North Carolina's various defenses and gambling traps?

Which team will the most points in transition, i.e., who will be hustling the most?

Carolina coach Dean Smith's defense is predicated on the unexpected trap, the gamble that will yield a fast-break basket for the Heels and, at the same time, take the onus away from their inside game.

"You want to keep moving the ball," said guard Donald (Duck) Williams. Notre Dame's leading scorer via Washington's Mackin High. "Yoy don't want to get caught with it. A ll five guys have to keep moving." Williams is most impressed by North Carolina's hustle.

"They might be one of the nesst hustling clubs we've faced all season," he said before practice yesterday. "They really hustle, for loose balls and all that. It's effective; it's won a lot of games for them."

Notre Dame also is a hard-working team because Williams explains, Adrian Dantley turned pro following his junior year. He is not intending a slap at Dantley, but the Irish have their most balanced scoring in some years and it apparently pays off in play at both ends of the court.

Key man defensively for Notre Dame is center Bruce Flowers. He was injured during a 102-78 loss to Kentucky that started a mid-season slide during which the Irish lost five of six games. Flowers, 6-8 sophomore, missed the next two games, losses to Princeton and Villanova on the road. The Irish also lost to Marquette in Milwaukee and to UCLA at home during this span.

Flowers combines with 6-9, 210-pound Toby Knight to average almost 25 rebounds a game. The other starter is 6-3 freshman point-guard Rich Branning.

Billy Paterno, a sharpshooting former starter, is a solid sixth man.

Notre Dame has won 14 of 15 games since its slump, including the recent toppling of then No. 1-ranked San Francisco from the unbeaten ranks. North Carolina, too, played well early, went through a midseason slump but recovered. The Tar Heels have won 12 straight games.

Neither Kentucky nor VMI have that kind of recent success. Kentucky, with a chance to win the Southeastern Conference title outright and thus host the Mideast Regionals, lost for the second time Tennessee. Thus the Wildcats were forced into the at-large route in NCAA-play.

VMI, which upset Tennessee and DePaul in NCAA play last year, was below 50 per cent in shooting in their last three games and coach Charlie Schmaus and his players say they will relish the underdog role.

"I don't think we were concentrating well when we were favored," said VMI center Dave Mongomery. "You play more relaxed when you're the underdog and it's easier to concentrate."

Hardly anyone, except the official VMI family, gives the Keydets a chance at beating the exceptionally physical Wildcats. It was the same last year against Tennessee and DePaul. Against Tennessee, VMI shooters like Will Bynum, John Krovic and Ron Carter - all back on this team - shot 66 per cent in the second half.

"If we shoot 66 percent Thursday, it's going to be a tough game for them," said Montgomery. "Our success depends on a combination of rebounding and shooting. If we can stay close in rebounding, we can beat them because we're going to shoot close to 50 per cent."

When Kentucky took the floor for practice yesterday, the Wildcats' looked more like tight ends and wrestlers than basketball players. Their defense is relentless, especially guard Larry Johnson, and Phillips and Rick Robery are both 6-10 punishers.