It was a spring afternoon last March, and John Thompson and Frank Rienzo had just finished their annual review of Georgetown's basketball season. They had discussed the just-completed 20-12 season, the gratification of a third straight NCAA bid, the frustration of a first-round loss in that tournament to James Madison.

They turned to 1981-82. Rienzo, the low-key athletic director, knew that Thompson, his often controversial coach, was about to complete one of the great recruiting coups in recent years. Getting a commitment from William Martin, an outstanding 6-foot-7 forward from McKinley Tech, had been nice. Also expected was a commitment from Anthony Jones, a superb 6-6 swing man from Dunbar.

But the main reason for the excitement about the future was the Feb. 2 announcement in a Boston restaurant by Patrick Ewing, 7 feet tall, the Ralph Sampson-Bill Walton-Lew Alcindor of the early 1980s. Ewing said just four words: "I have chosen Georgetown."

Those words represented a quantum leap for Georgetown and Thompson. They moved the Jesuit private school, the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the nation, from the pack to the upper strata of college basketball.

Now, having finished their talk, Thompson and Rienzo walked through the glass doors of Rienzo's office and into the arena where Georgetown's teams have performed since the 1940s. They looked around the quiet, empty, 4,400-seat gym. They looked for places where they could put extra seats.

Finally the two men, who had worked together for nine years, looked at each other and shook their heads. "We knew we had to make the move," Rienzo said. "There was no other way."

The move from homey, on-campus McDonough to the 19,035-seat Capital Centre represents much more than a geographic shift from Northwest Washington to Landover, Md. It is a final step for Georgetown in a 10-year climb from a 3-23 team in 1972 to this year's team, picked by some to win the national championship. The official Capital Centre debut comes Saturday against San Diego State; first the Hoyas play at McDonough Arena tonight at 8 against Morgan State.

The move means Georgetown is reaching for the big dollars that increasingly have become a part of college basketball with each passing year. It means the school must sell itself in the media day after day, because it has 12 dates in the big building.

It even means the Jesuits who run the school, from the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, university president, down, are willing to wince slightly, then smile when their marketing people cite Playboy magazine in their advertising.

Georgetown has become a member of college basketball's elite, a name mentioned in the same breath with North Carolina, UCLA, Kentucky, Louisville. That kind of label carries more with it than a spot in the national rankings, it carries an inevitable question: how did they do it?

"It's natural at this point in time with all that has happened that people would be suspicious of athletics at an academic institution," said William Stott, the school's vice president and dean of student affairs. "But we think the way we've done it is compatible with our general philosophy.

"There is nothing inconsistent with what this university is in our having an excellent basketball team. We strive for excellence in everything we do, and athletics is certainly an important part of life here. In this year's freshman class, 800 of the 1,200 entering students played a varsity sport in high school. We're an academic school, but there's also very much a jock orientation around here."

Stott was a Georgetown basketball player in the 1950s. Today, he teaches poetry, loves to draw literary analogies and sees basketball as a form of poetry. He also sees it as a part of campus life and is concerned that the program has outgrown its campus facility.

"It is not the ideal situation, we know that," he said. "But remember, it is just an experiment. We're committed to providing transportation for the students to Capital Centre. If it doesn't work out, we won't do it next year."

The move shook up a number of people on "the hill" -- as Thompson calls the central part of the pretty campus -- including Charles Deacon, the school's director of admissions and the man who headed the search committee that hired Thompson in 1972.

"When I heard about the move I was against it," Deacon said. "I called John and Frank right away and told them so. I think ideally kids should be able to have a drink at The Pub (a campus hangout) and then walk down the hill to the games.

"But we also have a responsibility to the Washington community as a whole, and with 4,500 seats we can't fill the responsibility in McDonough. That's why we had to do it, community responsibility, that's part of our job here, too."

If you let anyone at Georgetown list 100 reasons for the move, they probably never would mention money. Bring it up and Rienzo smiles angelically and says, "Oh, but that's just icing on the cake."

Rienzo says the Hoyas only need average 5,000 fans per date in the Centre to break even. Already, more than 6,000 season tickets have been sold, an astonishing figure considering that the Bullets reportedly have less than 4,000 season-ticket holders.

Add TV revenues and the NCAA tournament -- a final four appearance this year will be worth more than $500,000 to each team -- and Georgetown could be drowning in icing by spring.

As John Thompson likes to point out when people marvel at the team he has assembled this season, the Georgetown story is not that of an overnight sensation.

"People seem to think this happened overnight, that we just sprang from nowhere," he said recently, his huge frame relaxed in an office rocking chair. "It just isn't true. My mind and my body tell me that it's been 10 long, tough years getting to where we are now.

"The three kids everyone is talking about did not come here to make us good, they came here because we were good."

The three kids in question are Ewing, Martin and Jones. One year ago they were rated among the top 10 players in what was rated as one of the best high school senior classes in history.

Ewing, Jones and Martin do not represent a beginning. They join a team that has all five starters back, a team led by all-America wing guard Eric (Sleepy) Floyd. Rather than a foundation, the three freshmen are the final pieces in a puzzle Thompson has been piecing together methodically since 1972.

In nine seasons, he has a record of 176-84. Six of his nine teams have attained postseason tournament bids, and the 1980 team was one basket away from the final four, finishing with a 26-6 record.

But with Ewing on campus, Georgetown is being scrutinized as much by people in Michigan as on Michigan Avenue. What's more, having won their last three games against Maryland, and because of the freshmen, the Hoyas have supplanted Maryland as The Team in Washington.

That may be the final irony. In the winter of 1972, when Thompson's puzzle didn't even exist, those in power at Georgetown decided to reemphasize the sport principally because of the success Maryland was enjoying.

"But," said Deacon, "we never thought of competing with Maryland. We didn't think that would be realistic."

In February 1972, that kind of thinking at Georgetown was understandable. The basketball program, once a solid, respectable staple in the East, had tumbled into disarray.

The coach, Jack Magee, and the athletic director, Robert Sigholtz, were constantly at odds. Before that 1971-72 season was over, the Hoyas had their worst record in 32 years of varsity basketball, 3-23.

Magee, frustrated by the infighting, the budgetary problems, the lack of a full-time assistant coach, resigned in February. So did Sigholtz. The question for Georgetown was whether to retrench and try to compete in basketball at a lower level or whether to breathe new life into the program with additional funding and, crucially, by altering its admissions standards for athletes.

"The school was just then beginning to look for a national image, recruiting more students from around the country," Deacon said. "We were aware of what a basketball team can do for a university in terms of positive publicity. And, we were influenced by what Lefty Driesell was accomplishing at Maryland."

The school decided to take the step forward. It then went in search of a coach. Morgan Wootten, the De Matha High School coach, the John Wooden of preps, was considered. Jack Ramsey, a former St. Joseph's College coach (thus a Jesuit connection), was talked to briefly. George Raveling, then a Maryland assistant, also was interviewed.

But in the end, the choice was Thompson. He was 29 then, had been a winner for six years at St. Anthony's High School and impressed the seven-man search committee during his interview.

Thompson had grown up in the housing projects of Anacostia, and basketball had been a key part of his life almost from the moment he became six feet tall at age 12. He eventually grew to 6-10 and led Archbishop Carroll High School to 55 straight wins, still a local boys record. From there he went to Providence College, then played two years for the Boston Celtics before returning to Washington to take a full-time counseling job at Federal City College and a part-time coaching job at St. Anthony's.

Recommended by the search committee, Thompson was offered the job by the school president, the Rev. R.J. Henle. He still remembers their first meeting.

"I said to him, 'Father, what is it you want me to do (in terms of wins and losses) with this team, what do you expect?' And he said, 'Get to the NIT every once in a while and I'll be delighted.'

"I kind of smiled to myself when he said that, because even though Georgetown was a school that was associated with losing at the time, I had always been associated with winning. So, naturally I went in thinking I could do better than that.

"I remember telling a friend at that time, 'If we don't do well, it will tear me up and upset me a lot more than it will upset the school.' "

Magee, the former coach, thinks Georgetown got lucky. "If we hadn't gone 3-23, they never would have changed their approach. You don't change things when you are 10-16. Sure, maybe you change the coach, but you don't change anything else. But we lost so much they were shocked. So, they changed. I shocked them into it."

The big change was in admissions. Magee can remember the school turning down athletes who were decent students. "I lost a 6-7 kid once who ended up going to Princeton," he said.

But when Thompson arrived, Georgetown was changing its admissions approach. The black student population was barely 2 percent. No more than 50 black students applied each year, according to Deacon.

Today, applicants are not judged merely on school records or SAT scores. "We treat each case individually," Deacon said. "In some cases, a student who might not appear on paper to be admissible can do very well here.

"Back then, we were living on the fringes of the community, not as part of it," Deacon continued. "We were living in an ivory tower. We had to change that, we had to actively recruit students from inner-city schools in Washington."

That fit in with Thompson's belief that to succeed, Georgetown had to recruit locally. His first class had three players from St. Anthony's, five local players in all.

"There was no sense going 200 or 400 miles to have somebody say, 'Who?' or 'Georgetown? That's in Kentucky, right?' "

That happened to Thompson a few times just after he started recruiting. But he was able to build his team with a few well-chosen unknowns and an occasional breakthrough with a name player such as Al Dutch. "What we did well was to find kids who could play, who would try to learn, who we could motivate," Thompson said. "Just because a kid didn't have the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval didn't mean he couldn't play."

And those who could play got into school. More important, they stayed there. Through last year, 35 of 37 Thompson recruits had either graduated or were on schedule to graduate. From Day 1 at Georgetown, Thompson's shadow has been Mary Fenlon, a friend from Federal City and St. Anthony's, who came to the school with him to supervise the academic support program for the basketball team. Fenlon is Thompson's brake, the person who says, "whoa" when the coach's instinct to let practice run a bit long or to set up an extra film session might otherwise go unchecked.

"The job is a different one than the one I had," Magee said. "Look, John has done a great job, a super job, anybody who says different is crazy. What happened the last couple of years I was there was my fault. But when they changed their approach to basketball, what they're talking about is admissions. That's the key. I could not have gotten Patrick Ewing into school 10 years ago."

Ewing has been the subject of a good deal of controversy, principally because of the publication of the letter his parents and high school coach sent to prospective colleges outlining Ewing's special academic needs. "We never even knew about the letter," Deacon said. "No promises were made. In fact, what we are finding is that his people underestimated Patrick's ability to do the work."

Certainly, Thompson is sheltering Ewing, but he has always sheltered his players, especially his freshmen. He has run closed practices from the beginning; not allowed freshmen to be interviewed until Jan. 1 from the beginning. He also tries to keep his hotel locations a secret on the road, did not object when a recruit played under an assumed name two summers ago and doesn't want anyone watching practice.

He is secretive, reclusive and an intimidator. He denies none of the labels.

"By nature I've always been a suspicious person," he said. "I don't trust a lot of people. My friends say I've been that way since I was a kid."

Some of that, Thompson says, comes from going through life as a double minority: he is black and he is 6-10 (he also weighs at least 300 pounds). The first attribute was one reason there was some surprise when Thompson got the Georgetown job, because the school was almost totally white -- students, faculty, staff -- then. Deacon says that if anything, being black helped Thompson, because Georgetown felt a black coach would enhance the school's chances of recruiting black players and would show blacks in general that it was serious about changing its image.

Today, Georgetown's black applications are up to 550 a year, its total student population is 9 percent black, and 11 of the 13 players on the basketball team are black.

Thompson's first freshman class, five black players, was something of a shock to the virtually all-white campus. But there were few incidents or problems, and the team improved steadily, going 12-14 the first year, 13-13 the next.

During Thompson's third year, one truly ugly racial incident took place when someone hoisted a banner through a window of McDonough that read, "Thompson the nigger flop must go." The Hoyas, struggling to stay above .500, won their next 10 and made it to the NCAA tournament when Derrick Jackson's shot at the buzzer beat West Virginia in the ECAC playoffs.

From there, the program has taken off; the worst record since then was 19-9. NCAA appearances climaxed the last three seasons, including the 26-6 Big East championship season of 1980.

But now, more is expected, much more. Thompson is as aware of the dangers of high expectations as anyone. He flinched when Playboy ranked his team No. 1 preseason and flinched further when the marketing department tried to exploit the ranking by using it in newspaper ads.

He knew even before the disastrous (two losses to mediocre opposition in three games) Great Alaskan Shootout that this was a team that was going to need time to mature. Now, he will begin finding out about the pressures that go with great expectations. He understands those things come with the new territory.

"You learn to suffer peacefully," he said. "It's like planning conflict into your day. You understand that expectations are a part of this game, that people wanting to interview you is part of it. What you have to do at some point is look up and say, 'I'm a basketball coach and my job is to prepare my team. That still has to be your first priority.' "

Now, Georgetown is entering a new era. Where 20 victories and a spot in the NCAA tournament were once a successful season, people now will want to know what went wrong if the Hoyas don't make a run for the national championship.

As Stott puts it, "with success comes scrutiny."

Thompson is a man who perspires so heavily that he keeps a white towel draped over his shoulder during games. But he doesn't appear to be terribly nervous about the glare of the spotlight.

"I have always felt pressure to win wherever I've been and for as long as I've been here," he said. "The five kids I brought in my first year were expected to win. Now it's a different level, a different kind of pressure, because we have more talent and more is expected and more people will be watching us.

"But let's face it, that's what you're striving for, that's what we've been building to the last 10 years, that kind of pressure, that kind of attention. That's a reward for doing well with your program. You want that, it's an ego thing. Everybody likes to sit back and read about how good they are. But I try not to do that until the season is over."

For the moment, Thompson is treading softly. He knows his team is young. He knows what Terry Holland went through during Ralph Sampson's freshman year at Virginia. And, through his close friendship with North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, he has developed a healthy respect for the Smith credo, which holds, "Build up thy opponent, not thyself."

When the Georgetown marketing people were putting together their campaign to sell tickets, they wandered down the long hallway of McDonough Arena's second floor and knocked on the unmarked white door that leads into the plush complex of basketball offices.

They went into John Thompson's office, sat down with him and asked him to talk about his team. What they wanted, they told him, were some quotes from the coach to put in their ads. They wanted Thompson to tell them, and the waiting public, how great his basketball team was going to be.

John Thompson smiled. He also said nothing. Finally, he looked up and said quietly, "My mother didn't raise any fools."