Despite the loss of starting center Tom Scates with a knee injury, Georgetown appears confident as it opens NCAA basketball tournament play here Saturday with a second-round game against Rutgers.

The Hoyas, making their third NCAA appearance in Coach John Thompson's seven years, have not won a game in the national-championship tournament since the 1943 squad lost to Wyoming in the final.

However, the Hoyas' sights are not just set on winning this 2:06 p.m. (WRC-TV-4) opener in a doubleheader at the Providence Civic Center that sends Syracuse against Connecticut in the second game. The winners advance to regional semifinal games March 16 at Greensboro, N.C.

Georgetown is a four-point favorite Saturday. Yet, despite a 24-4 regular-season record and 11th-and 12th-place rankings in the wire service polls, many wonder how good the Hoyas really are.

"It doesn't bother me that we're painted the underdog," said forward Steve Martin, the Georgetown captain. "We just want to win the tournament... I really don't consider us the underdog against anybody."

Forward Craig Shelton, an honorable mention All-America, added:

"I can't wait until we play. I like competition. I like playing against competition. I like the odds, especially when they're against us. That means people still don't know how good we are and they tend to relax. They think they have it in the bag."

Thompson would feel a lot more confident if he had Scates, the 6-foot-11 and 250-pound center who makes the Hoyas' four other quick starters so effective as a unit defensively.

Once again, Thompson said a team needs strong center play in this tournament but that he does not worry about No. 2 center Ed Spriggs' ability to play. He does wonder what will happen if Spriggs gets into foul trouble.

Spriggs played 38 minutes a week ago in the 66-58 victory over Syracuse that won the ECAC Southern-Upstate New York playoff and earned Georgetown the No. 3 seeding in the East behind North Carolina and Duke.

Spriggs played well against Syracuse's 6-11 Roosevelt Bouie. And he will have to come through again because Georgetown will be facing a team with another outstanding center in 6-9 James Bailey. Rutgers' offense also is oriented to an inside attack.

Although he started the season with no previous experience in organized basketball, the 22-year-old Spriggs has played 186 minutes more than Scates and played as many or more minutes in 18 of the 26 games in which they both participated, including the last eight.

Scates' value is on defense. He clogs the middle, either blocking shots or making the opposition put up lower-percentage attempts. Georgetown's strategy is to control the tempo early, and therefore be in position to play the cautious game the Hoyas execute so well.

"It's really important for Ed to stay out of foul trouble and for him to be able to do a good job early in the game," Thompson said. "With Tommy gone, depth becomes really a concern, and we've got to play a smart game. We've got to control the tempo. We've got to pick the times we want to run; we've got to pick the times we don't want to run."

Rutgers, which struggled offensively through its first 16 games, takes a 21-8 record and nine straight wins into Saturday's contest.

The Scarlet Knights have started slowly at times this season. The most extreme example was an early February game against George Washington in which they fell 25 points behind but lost by three.

"The key will be to get in the game early and not fall behind and take bad shots," said Tom Brown, Rutgers' point guard.

"It's tough to play from behind against any good club," said Rutgers Coach Tom Young. "It changes what you can do and gives them the advantage of dictating what you have to do. They get conservative against the better teams."

Thompson prefers the term "cautious" to conservative and the Hoyas have played that way in early season victories over Maryland, Indiana, St. John's and in the Syracuse game.

Both teams play excellent defense. So the game likely will come down to whichever can run its offense better. Georgetown held Old Dominion to 30 percent shooting and Syracuse to 40 percent accuracy in the ECAC playoff games.

Besides Shelton and Martin, whom Thompson today called "the glue of the team" and a key factor Saturday, the Hoyas get a lot of points and good defense out of guards John Duren and Sleepy Floyd.

As Georgetown finished practicing today at the Civic Center, Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim waited for his team to take the floor and said, "Everybody talked about the front lines last week. Their guards killed us."