John Duren and Craig Shelton, both honorable mention all-Americas and the backbone of the Georgetown University basketball team, played their final collegiate game in Sunday's 81-80 loss to Iowa in the NCAA East Regional final.

But the Hoya basketball program is so healthy now that there is optimism on the Hilltop despite their departure, ending an era that produced an average of 23 victories for each of the last four seasons.

"We lose a lot," Coach John Thompson said yesterday of the seniors' departure. "But we'll come back and have a reasonably good team."

How good depends on how well Thompson recruits and how much his remaining players improve their games to blend with guard Eric (Sleepy) Floyd, who scored 31 points in a memorable performance against Iowa.

Of Georgetown's top 10 players, six return, with starting small forward Al Dutch and guard Terry Fenlon, Floyd's backup, also graduating. Also gone will be senior reserves Lonnie Duren and John Irwin, who saw little playing time.

"After Sleepy, it's hard for me to say who's going to play," Thompson said. "Sleepy's proven himself. Nobody else is automatically inheriting a position. That's the worst thing they can think. If they don't know me well enough, they'll be disappointed."

That is clearly a challenge to his other eight returning players -- centers Ed Spriggs, Mike Frazier and Mike Hancock; forwards Eric Smith, Jeff Bullis and David Blue; guards Kurt Kaull and Ron Blaylock. They must improve or be pushed aside by incoming freshmen.

A case in point is Fred Brown, a 6-foot-5 1/2 point guard from New York.

On the day he met Thompson for the first time, he told the coach he would attend Georgetown. Then he notified his other top choices -- Duke, Ohio State and Michigan State -- to stop recruiting him.

A Duke assistant said recently that Brown would have been the best guard the Blue Devils ever signed. That includes Jim Spanarkel and Vince Taylor.

"I wouldn't disagree with that," Thompson said yesterday.

Last year, Thompson recruited Kaull, a 6-3 player from Wheaton, Ill., described by Sports Illustrated magazine this season as "the classic point guard" to replace Duren in a year.

"Kurt Kaull definitely can play. I think he can do the job," Thompson said. "But Fred's a super. Fred was most valuable player in the Five-Star South camp. You don't turn down a guard like Fred who can pass the ball, a 6-5 1/2 point guard. You don't turn down people like that, not with John Duren graduating."

Thompson has six scholarships to give and he is looking for at least one player at every position.

"A lot of players who have had the opportunity to play won't play next year unless they improve," Thompson said. "This summer will be extremely important. The ones who come back in the best shape and show the most are going to play. I'll play as many freshmen as are able to play."

Smith and Spriggs are the players who seem most likely to play many minutes next season. Smith was the team's best defensive forward this year. Thompson sees Spriggs as his starting center next season after returning toward the end of this 26-6 campaign following an ankle injury.

Thompson has a number of options to replace Shelton in the starting lineup. If Mike Frazier, the 7-foot reserve center, comes back more svelte than he ended this season, then Spriggs could go to power forward. Thompson also could start Hancock, who is skinny but scrappy and needs to shoot and rebound better, or he can start Bullis, who needs to improve his rebounding, or go with a freshman.

No matter what, the Hoyas cannot stand pat or have a poor recruiting year if they want to repeat this season's success.

"We can get players as capable as John Duren or Craig Shelton," said Thompson, who never talks about potential recruits. "But they're not John Duren or Craig Shelton with four years of experience and leadership here. We've got to get some people who can contribute to our team right now. It's not a question of us wanting players, but needing good people."

Despite the loss Sunday, Thompson knows the value of Georgetown's first national television appearance in his eight seasons, a game that helped showcase his program -- and Floyd.

"The game could not have hurt us," Thompson said.

In addition to a chance to play immediately, Thompson also has another enticement to offer recruits. The Hoyas will open next season at the Great Alaska Shootout, one of the premier tournaments in the country.

And he will need a terrific team just to win 20 games in the Big East Conference, to which Villanova applied last week. Six conference teams participated in postseason play this season. With a double round-robin conference schedule in a league of that caliber, Georgetown will have to upgrade its program.

The Great Alaska Shootout gives Thompson three extra games to achieve the 20-victory plateau, since the tournament, like Hawaii's Rainbow Classic, does not count toward the 27-game limit.