When they flipped the coins the other night to decide the first-round bye in the Big East Conference tournament starting Thursday, all three participants dropped their coins on the floor, forcing another flip.

"The players aren't the only ones who are going to be nervous," quipped Dave Gavitt, the league's commissioner, before he flipped again.

Gavitt's "Syracuse" coin came up tails, the odd coin of the three, giving the important bye to the team ranked second and third in the wire-service polls.

Georgetown, 21-5 and winner of its last 10 games, and St. John's, ranked eighth in both polls, were the other teams tying for first place in the regular season and involved in the coin flip.

Georgetown is ranked 20th and playing what Coach John Thompson describes as "indescribably delicious" basketball. The Hoyas, with a 52-50 upset win at Syracuse two weeks ago, arguably are at present the best of the three conference powers.

Yet, because of its midseason slump when it lost four of eight games, Georgetown is the only one of the three that almost has to win the tournament. gBecause the Big East is only two years old its tourney winner does not receive an automatic bid to the NCCAA tournament, and the NCAA selection committee is unlikely to keep more than two teams from the same conference in any regional.

Thompson does not want his Hoyas to become the roadshow of the NCAAs. He would rather return to Providence or go to Greensboro, N.C., when the real battle for the national title begins.

Georgetown has qualified for three NCAA tournaments in Thompson's seven years at the Hilltop and never has survived the first game. Once the Hoyas lost in Temple, Ariz., another time in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Georgetown's goals in the Big East tournament, Thompson said are "getting in the NCAA tournament and getting in a place where you're not sent to your death."

Therefore, assuming St. John's beats Providence and Georgetown disposes of Seton Hall in Thursday's opening round at the Providence Civic Center, Georgetown must not only beat St Jonh's in Friday night's semifinal but do it impressively to make sure the Hoyas stay in the East.

During the regular season, St. John's won by two points at Georgetown.

The thinking is that Georgetown and Syracuse are playing better now than St. John's and posses more imposing inside games, so vital in the NCAA tournament. For St. John's to win, center Wayne McKoy must stay out of foul trouble and play well.

St. John's which reached the East Regional final last year, has strong additions to a veteran starting five -- freshmen David Russell and transfer Carter is offensive magic in the final minutes of tight games.

The bye will give Syracuse a decided advantage over Georgetown if the Hoyas beat St. John's. The Hoyas will have played an emotional 40 minutes less than 20 hours previously and will be in their third game in 44 hours. Georgetown's depth -- the Hoyas now use 10 players -- will be in its favor.

Georgetown did a terrific job holding Syracuse center Roosevelt Bouie and forward Louis Orr -- the two pillars of the Orangemen -- to a combined 17 points in the previous meeting. The Hoyas did it by sagging inside and giving up some open jumpers. Syracuse also mixed five of its last seven free throws, including the first of three one-and-ones.

The Hoyas beat Syracuse last year in the ECAC playoffs on a neutral court and this year stopped the nation's longest home-court winning streak at 57. There is no reason they cannot win again. The Big East winners, too, surely will emerge as a favorite in the wide-open race for the national championship.