"Too nice too early," said John Thompson, who was not being too sly. Nobody turns down a 4-0 record, with victories over Maryland and Indiana, although Georgetown is a basketball enigma: Good enough to play with the best teams in the country but one injury from being ordinary.

The Hoyas are the most delicate top-20 team in America. They are big but play small -- and capable of losing for the very reasons that have yielded an unbeaten season so far. They will go as far as an impenetrable zone defense and free throws allow, which could be a very long way.

Thompson did not pass out roles with the uniforms this year, but he came close. The captain, Steve Martin, explains:

"John (Duren) handles the ball, Sleepy (Eric Floyd) throws in those jumpers and Craig (Shelton) and (Ed) Spriggs rebound and do the dirty work."

And Martin?

"Right now it depends on the situation. Sometimes I handle the ball, sometimes I do the dirty work and sometimes I take the shots."

At times against Indiana Wednesday night in Capital Centre, Martin was a 6-foot-4 1/2 point guard, a 6-4 1/2 perimeter shooter and a 6-4 1/2 power forward. When Georgetown gained control of the game midway through the second half, Martin provided the points.

"Nobody leads the same way," Thompson said. "Last year, Derrick (Jackson) led by doing, with no verbal direction. Steve works hard, but he also gives directions on the court, which is ideal now with the young kids."

Those kids are freshmen Floyd, who is averaging nearly 20 points per game, and Spriggs, who has the potential for unlimited rebounding and terrible one-liners.

The one-liners come from others, their origins being the 22-year-old Spriggs' background as a postal worker. (For instance, when Spriggs sends his 6-9 body toward the rafters and blocks a shot, the ball bounces back stamped "return to sender.")

Spriggs and the immobile Tom Scates are the centers around whom Thompson builds his zone defense and all but ignores on offense. That is not the way textbooks say to win 20 games and advance far in the NCAA tournament.

But Georgetown has beaten enough quality teams on its schedule and has enough twinkies left to muster 20 victories. And Spriggs might develop enough to be a factor in postseason play.

"We can go as far as the players want," said Martin, and his choice of pronouns coming up suggests his own confidence. "If they want the NCAA title, we can get it."

Still, there are problems. Generally, a zone defense is a sign of weakness, like blitzing linebackers regularly in the NFL and hiding in front of a television camera in politics. At the moment, Georgetown has little depth, or no one Thompson trusts with more than a few minutes off the bench.

Hoya players could be covered with barbed wire for all the chance anyone has of getting inside their wonderfully mobile zone. But Indiana had scads of open, makable outside jumpers -- and missed most of them.

As Thompson said after the six-point victory, "I've been around too long to figure it's time to go to the banquet table." But he also has been around long enough to savor a victory over Bobby Knight -- and for reasons other than the Indiana coach having arguably the finest mind in college basketball.

"He's a tremendous tactician, of course," Thompson said. "But I watch him at the coaches convention and I don't find anybody who gives more respect to old coaches. Like Clair Bee.

"I've watched whole conventions where Bobby literally fed the man, wiped his mouth and took him almost everywhere. These are things you never hear about. He's tough, a hard man. But he's just as hard on himself.

"And he treats old coaches, to a man, with the respect they deserve but seldom get. He doesn't just say hello and walk away, he stays with them. He cares about them -- and sometimes for them. You can't joke with that."

Knight's team, like Thompson's, is young. Unlike Thompson's, it is not sure of itself, with no Floyd-like freshmen with flair and poise from the outside. Thompson began the season shielding his freshmen from public pressure; now he says: "Floyd's telling the upperclassmen to settle down."

Floyd is from Gastonia, N.C., "a country boy who's not too bad." Thompson smiles here, overjoyed with his recruiting coup. "He's even got a 'city shot.' You know, one of those scoopers, with a pump. I didn't know he had a crazy shot.

"He's so good he shot the thing up from 40 feet once. He thought anything would fall." Thompson smiled again. Coaches are paid to be pessimists and ego deflaters, and all of a sudden he has something to keep Floyd in line.

"He gave me a couple reasons to fuss," said Thompson. "Now if I could just find something to fuss to the team about."