Westchester Junior College's Michael Kelly starts a three-on-two fast break. He has teammates Felix Tertulien and Allen Collins on the wings.

The two Three Rivers Community College defenders who are back on defense converge on Kelly.

Kelly does not even look toward his teammates as he tries to dribble through both defenders. Predictably, he loses the ball -- and Westchester loses the game.

Westchester Coach Ralph Arietta hangs his head. All of the big-time college coaches who are seated behind the basket shake their heads in unison and make mental notes.

This is junior-college basketball and Kelly's antics are not unexpected.

Westchester does not have a starter taller than 6-foot-3, but the Westcos went into the game with a 33-2 record and were the top-ranked team in the National Junior College Athletic Association.

Three Rivers won the game by four points and it was easy to see why. Westchester ran up and down the floor, playing one on one, and went the entire game without a single assist.

Westchester's style is the norm, not the exception, in junior-college basketball. The game on this level usually is a wild, unstructured, run-and-gun free-for-all. The caliber of team play appears to be one step above YMCA ball and one step below high school.

So welcome to the world of JuCos, where no one pases up a chance to dribble behind his back or go one on one and sometimes even one on five, where a pass is something you make at a girl and a stall is where you keep a horse. The name of the JuCo game is put the ball in the hole and make it look as difficult as you can.

That style holds much of the lure and magic of JuCo basketball and there are some real players hidden in the maze. The key is to find them.

This is the JuCos week in the limelight, their national tournament here in Hutchinson.

Four-year college coaches from all over are in town, looking for a prospect who may help their programs. Some have been found in the past.

Marquette was a national power this season because of Sam Worthen, a transfer from McLennan (Tex.) Community College. Undefeated and top-ranked Indiana State would not be where it is today -- even with Larry Bird -- if it were not for former junior college players. Six Sycamores are JuCo transfers, the best of them being guard Carl Nicks and forward Alex Gilbert.

Idaho State's Lawrence Butler, the leading major-college scorer this season, is from Western Texas Junior College.

Current National Basketball Association stars Bob McAdoo of Boston, Tom Henderson of Washington, Lionel Hollins of Portland, Fred Brown of Seattle, Spencer Haywood of New Orleans and Larry Kenon of San Antonio are former JuCo players and pro coaches Dick Motta of Washington and Cotton Fitzsimmons of Kansas City are former junior college coaches.

Most basketball-minded youngsters who go to junior colleges are there because their grades were not good enough to get them into a major school, or because they weren't good enough or ready for big-time basketball.

Nicks attended junior college to hone his skills.

He played for Indiana State in 1976-77, but when he saw he wasn't going to get much playing time last season, he transferred to Gulf Coast Community College (Fla). and averaged 24.4 points a game.

"It was one of the smartest moves I ever made," said Nicks, who has started every game this season and is averaging almost 20 points a game for the Sycamores. "I needed the playing time and the only way I was going to get it was in junior college."

There are a number of misconceptions about junior colleges, the biggest being that they are underground factories where the big-time colleges hide superstars until they smarten up.

In truth, most junior-college players are not major-college star material. Many are chasing an unreachable dream.

The National Junior College Athletic Association is run out of a storefront office in Hutchinson by Executive Director George E. Killian. There are 574 schools that play men's basketball in the NJCAA and Killian has only a four-person staff to oversee it.

California, with a vast network of junior colleges, is the only state that does not belong to the NJCAA.

"We don't have the sophistication of recruiting that four-year schools have," Killian said. "Room and board, books and tuition is all you can give a kid and since most schools don't even have dorms, money just isn't there to give the kid to attract him." As a result, most go to a junior college in their area.

The tournament here is wild. Sixteen teams from 22 regions are brought to Hutchinson and the eventual champion has to win four games in five days.

Gene Keady coached for nine years at Hutchinson Junior College, has been an assistant coach to Eddie Sutton at Arkansas and just completed his first season as head coach at Western Kentucky. He is in Hutchinson to babysit a prospect, Don Reese of Lind-sey-Wilson College of Columbia, Ky. Reese is a 6-8 205-pound power forward from Chicago, who averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds and shot 68 percent from the field this season.

"We recruited him at Western, but he didn't have the grades to get in," Keady said. "He didn't even know about junior colleges and he thought his career was over when we told him he couldn't get into school, but we stuck him at Lindsey-Wilson and now he's ready.

"Just because we had him before and sent him to Lindsey, Wilson does not mean he's our property," Keady added. "The game doesn't work that way. Any coach in the country can and will try to steal him. That's just the way the game works. That's why I'm here now, to protect him."

The primary complaint against a junior-college player is that he has only two years of major-college eligibility remaining after spending two years at the junior college.

"That's why I look at them very little," said Louisville Coach Denny Crum. "It usually takes a year for them to learn what to do and then they have only one year left. I want to get the guy as a freshman and keep him all four years."

Marquette Coach Hank Raymonds said that, "Most junior-college kids are so undisciplined that it just doesn't pay to fool with them, but there are some like Sam, who are different and can help you. He made us what we are this year."

Stacy Robinson is a former high school All-America at Dunbar in Washington, D.C., who has drifted from junior college to junior college. Niagara Community College is his fourth stop since 1975 and he still has one year of junior-college eligibility left and two years of NCAA eligibility.

"I wasn't a good booker so I had to go to a JC," Robinson said, after his team lost a first-round game Tuesday. "The hard thing was finding one I liked and one where I fit in. I think I finally have now."

There are five other D.C.-area players on the Niagara team -- Tony Hawkins of Eastern, Chris Jerry of Spingarn, Steve Smith of Carroll. Barry Wright of Bell and Larnell Morgan of Spingarn.

Wright, a 6-5 forward, had the grades to go to a major school, but realized he was not ready socially or mentally.

"I needed the two years to learn how to adjust to a college environment," Wright said. "I never would have made it at a big school two years ago. I will now."

The same factors that make major schools successful make junior colleges successful, too.

Westchester and Niagara players can run, jump and shoot and the coach merely rolls the ball out onto the floor and watches them slamdunk, dribble between their legs and pass behind their bakcs.

The good teams, however, like Three Rivers of Poplar Bluff, Mo., do things differently.

The Raiders block off on the boards, play good defense and use a controlled, conservative offense. That is why they were 34-3 after beating Westchester.

Coach James Dess' program is not just a way station for players trying to be discovered.

"I'm not nursemaiding kids for any major college," he said. "I want to win on this level. This is my life and this is what I want to do."

A radio and newspaper reporter followed the Raiders and their gym back home is standing-room only for all games.

"We have an team concept and we have some major-college caliber kids, but this team comes first," Dess said.

"At some junior colleges, the kids don't learn anything. At Three Rivers, the kids are getting tough competition and they are learning how to play. They are patient and they work the ball inside. A kid can play in any system after he leaves here."

Unfortunately for a lot of JuCo players, that is not true everywhere and, instead of improving their skills, their bad habits are reinforced.

"You've just got to see through all of the showmanship. but the chances of finding a kid here who will take you to the top are almost nil," said Keady. "All of those guys aren't going to waste their time in JCs. The big schools have already snatched them up."