"What time do we play Friday?" John Thompson wondered.

That had not been decided yet -- and the Georgetown coach's face took on a familar twinkle of bemusement.

"The NCAA's are just like 'Mission: Impossible.'" he said. "They give you little packets that tell you when you're gonna play. They give you little packets that tell you who's gonna referee. They give you little packets that tell you what hotel you're gonna be in -- and little packets that tell you how the refs are gonna call the game.

"There's nothin' like the NCAA tournament."

No little packet is needed to identifying the Hoyas's opponent -- and, of course, they will accept the assignment in Philadelphia's Spectrum with enthusiasm. They have been lookint for an NCAA victory even longer than they have been looking for a shot at Maryland.

Before anyone looks ahead, though, Thompson would like one more glance backward. He could swear an enormous monkey -- one that had been growing larger and more tenacious for four years -- had just skipped off Georgetown's back and out of the dressing room.

In moments such as these, coaches are overcome with retroactive honesty. So Thompson was volunteering that, yes, both he and the players had been more concerned about the Hoyas' previous failure to win an NCAA game then they had admitted.

Three times under Thompson they had been foiled, by controversial calls (against Central Michigan) and assorted injuries. Maybe they had choked a bit, too, but nobody wanted to pose the question or send out for truth serum at the moment.

"When (Eric) Smith was hurt (Thursday in practice)," Thompson said, "it (The NCAA jinx) hit me. And all the kids got sensitive, too, because injuries had happened before. It got to the point that when John (Duren) dove for a loose ball (in practice) and two guys bumped him, Terry (Fenlon) was furious at 'em.

"I was sort of making my excuses, before the game by saying some teams never get here to lose. Damn right we thought about it. But it would have been stupid for me to discuss it with the team.

"Now we've cleared a hurdle, gotten the NCAA cobwebs cleared out."

But there had been an earlier hurdle that had to be cleared, one that made it possible for the Hoyas even to get to this one today. It was a game Thompson said determined whether the team would be good or great.

The Hoyas were 13-5, on a two-game winning streak, but trailing Boston College by eight points on the road with a minute left in the game. They rallied -- and ended an impressive comeback when Mike Frazier hit a three-point play to force an overtime.

Georgetown won in a breeze and the Hoyas haven't lost since.

"That was the key," Thompson said. "It instilled that little bit of confidence. Something had to happen to pull these kids together."

"I didn't have a great feeling about this club. They were nice kids. They hustled -- and showed respect. But that (the B.C. win) solidified the team. That was the key. They got respect for themselves, a lot of praise.

"It gave them something they needed."

Now they have something they want -- another chance at Maryland, and a victory over the Terps would put them among the final eight teams in the NCAA tournament. Teams rated much higher already have fallen.

The mood for athletic war is set, the short of possibilities that leave Washington-area basketball junkies quivering: two volatile coaches who left their earlier game unhappy with one another, Big Sky and Sky King in high-altitude combat, the cerebral Duren vs. the subtle Greg Manning.

And Buck

Georgetown won the earlier collision, by 12 points, in large measure because Buck Williams was sidelined with a hand injury. A reformed forward, he suddenly was called "the best center in the country" by an emotional Lefty Driesell an hour after the Georgetown game.

Williams is healthy -- and playing center exceptionally well. He also is one of the ways used by both Driesell and Thompson in scrambling for the underdog role so many coaches covet in important games.

"They also beat us with Buck," Driesell said, referring to a threepoint victory last season when Williams was at forward and Larry Gibson was the center.

"You beat a team by 12 earlier and you've gotta be careful," Thompson said. "I'm glad Maryland's saying Buck wasn't there the first time.That takes that (favorite) role off."

"I hope you all (there were perhaps two dozen reporters near him at the time) don't call us the favorites. We get a little angry with people who say we can't play."

Sorry, John. You're the favorite here, by a teeny bit. Maryland might have better inside players, but you have more. Your guards are slightly better, if Duren avoids another one-for-eight, four-turnover performance.

For at least one athletic drifter, the NCAA playoffs are the best of times. College athletes and their fans are the most intense in all of sport -- and at least offer the aura of innocence, the notion that games still can be played for reasons other than money.

"Why else?" asks Georgetown publicist Jim Marchiony, "would God create March?"