Three seasons ago, Kentucky was the NCAA runner-up. The next year, it was the National Invitation Tournament champion. And last year, with its best team since Joe B. Hall took over from Adolph Rupp five seasons earlier, the Wildcats lost in the East Regional to North Carolina.

They didn't like that down in Lexington, Ky., and the Wildcats vowed somebody would pay.

Well, it's a new basketball season and the Kentucky Wildcats are indeed bigger and badder than before.

Kentucky has four starters and a host of top reserves back from last year. Leading scorer Jack Givens (18.9) is the smoothest. Givens, James Lee (last year's sixth man) and guards Truman Claytor and Jay Shidler provide the flair.

The muscle comes from a pair of 6-foot-10 behemoths, Rick Robey and Mike Phillips.

The Wildcats can play slowdown and wear down the opposition, or they can run right past other teams. They shoot, rebound and intimidate. In short, they appear as good as many of the UCLA teams that dominated the college ranks for so long, and they command the same respect.

Just to keep everyone alert, Hall recruited two more 6-10 youngsters and also has talented 6-4 Kyle Macy, a transfer from Purdue.

"They are just so physical," said Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, "and they have quality depth. They look like the ones to beat."

Said Hall, "I feel good about this team, real good."

Phelps is feeling good about his team too. The Irish can be almost as physical as Kentucky. They lack experienced depth, but by the second half of the season they could be as good as any team.

Bill Laimbeer, a 6-11 center, is back after a year of academic troubles to team with 6-9 Dave Batton and 6-8 Bruce Flowers up front.

The guards are Duck Williams, a Mackin High grad who averaged 18.1 points last season, and Rich Branning, who threw in 10.7 points and had 138 assists.

Add to that starting five 6-7 freshman Kelly Tripucka, son of the former Notre Dame quarterback and a fine jump shooter, and 6-5 Tracy Jackson, the former Paint Branch (Md.) star, and the Irish suddenly have their depth and versatility, too.

The Irish also could have the toughest schedule this side of the National Basketball Association. They play UCLA twice, Indiana, Kentucky, San Francisco, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina State and Marquette.

Two oof the most fun teams to watch will be out west and both are capable of scoring 150 points a game - with ease. They are, of course, Nevada-Las Vegas and San Francisco.

The Runnin' Rebels are no probation and are thus ineligible for the NCAA tournament, but they still have one of the flashiest players around in 6-foot-7 Reggie Theus.

Theus has taken what he likes best from the games of Dr. J., Earl Monroe and Pete Maravich and put them into one body - his. Theus averaged 14.5 points and had 136 assists last year.

If the Philadelphia 76ers have a counterpart in college basketball, it is the University of San Francisco. Unlike recently fired 76er coach Gene Shue, though, the Dons' coach, Bob Gaillard, has at least some control over his troops. They have promised to give him more. If they are sincere about that, the Dons could challenge anyone.

Their 6-11 center, Bill Cartwright, is a sure All-America (19.4 points) and along with forwards Winford Boynes (17.2) and James (Trouble) Hardy (14.4 points and 10.9 rebounds), make up as gifted a front line as there is anywhere.

Going this long without mentioning UCLA in a collee basketball preview doesn't seem fitting, but the Bruins are probably just another good team this year. They could be great, but they lack the one superstar like Marques Johnson that they know they can depend on.

The Bruins should be more at ease under Gary Cunningham than they were with Gene Bartow, but it is tough to tell just how good they will be. Ten lettermen return, led by 6-10 David Greenwood and guards Roy Hamilton, Brad Holland and Raymond Townsend.

Losing Johnson will hurt enough but the Bruins also lost 6-11 Brett Vroman, who transferred to Nevada-Las Vegas, where he is not yet eligible.

UCLA has won 12 consecutive Pacific-Eight titles, "and you've got to pick them because they've been there," said Washington State's George Raveling. "But I'll be surprised if they win it. This is the first time everyone in the conference is a contender."

Last year's NCAA finalists, Marquette and North Carolina, are not to be overlooked. Hank Raymonds has replaced Al McGuire as the Marquette coach, but no one has replaced Bo Ellis. There is, however, guard Butch Lee (19.6) and 6-10 Jerome Whitehead (10.5 points and 8.2 rebounds).

Bernard Toone will have more freedom under Raymonds than he did with McGuire and may yet become a star.

Carolina has Phil Ford, and there is none better. Along with Mike O'Koren, that is more than enough to build a team around. With Rich Yonakor, Tom Zaligarias, Dudley Bradley and freshman whiz Al Wood, the Tar Heels likely will be a national power.

Ford scored 18.7 points and had 217 assists last season while shooting 53 per cent from the field and 85 per cent from the foul line.

With John Kuester and Walter Davis gone, he will have to do even more this year, but if the youngsters follow him and listen to Dean Smith, they should be right back in the final four again.

Other teams to watch closely will be Arkansas with its three 6-4 leapers - Marvin Delph (19.7 points), Ron Brewer (17) and Sidney Moncrief (15.4 points and 8.4 rebounds) - Minnesota, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. John's and Purdue.

The best big man in college basketball this season should be 6-10 Mychal (Mike) Thompson of Minnesota. He'll miss his team's first seven games because of a NCAA ruling and the Gophers are ineligible for postseason play, but when he returns, they will be the team to beat in the Big 10.

Thompson teams with 6-10 Dave Winey and 6-11 Kevin McHale to give Minnesota one of the biggest and best front lines in the country.

Winey also is temporarily ineligible and McHale is out with an achilles tendon injury. They will all be together by the time the Big 10 starts conference play in January, though, and then it will be look-out time.

The other team to watch in the Big 10 will be Purdue.The Boilermakers have practically their entire team back from last year, including 7-1 center Joe Barry Carroll.

Michigan would have challenged, but the Wolverines lost All-America Phil Hubbard to knee surgery last month and it is doubtful if he will be able to play this season.

Freshmen to watch are Albert King of Maryland, Eugene Banks of Duke, Darell Valentine of Kansas, Wayne McKoy of St. John's, Jeff Lamp of Virginia, Jeff Ruland of Iona (N.Y.) and perhaps the best of them all, Earvin Johnson of Michigan State.

The 6-7 Johnson says, "I already have more medals than Idi Amin."

One coach compared him to Amin in another way - "He can do whatever he wants."