As soon as Georgetown's Patrick Ewing began establishing himself as a force in Eastern basketball, skeptics began saying, "Yeah, but wait until he faces John Pinone."

When Georgetown plays Villanova tonight at 8 o'clock at Capital Centre, Ewing, the Hoyas' 7-foot freshman, will meet Pinone, a 6-foot-8 bull whose inside toughness has established him as the best center in the Big East.

Even though the Big East regular season is only half over, 13th-ranked Georgetown (14-5, 3-3 in the conference) must win this game if the Hoyas are to contend for the regular-season title.

This long-anticipated matchup has lost some of its luster because the Hoyas, after winning 13 straight games, have lost three straight to conference opponents. And Villanova, which won its first six Big East games, lost in the final seconds Saturday night to Connecticut, which defeated Georgetown last week.

"I don't think this game will be any less intense," Connecticut Coach Dom Perno said yesterday on the telephone. "What has happened this last week (the Georgetown and Villanova losses) will only stimulate those two teams even more."

Perno said he would would "have to go with Georgetown" tonight, because the Hoyas will play before about 14,000 at home and because Georgetown is determined to end its losing streak.

But as Perno saw on Saturday, Georgetown and Villanova are very similar. And he used Wednesday's success against Georgetown to help defeat the Wildcats.

"Both of them are extremely strong inside," Perno said, "but neither shot very well from the outside, so we played a 2-3 zone defense against both. We gave both teams the outside shot, and fortunately neither hit very many."

Georgetown can vary its strategy, by emphasizing all-America guard Eric Floyd or wing men Anthony Jones and Mike Hancock, if Coach John Thompson decides to do so. All are good medium-range and outside shooters.

But Villanova's strategy is consistent. Get the ball inside to Pinone (19 points per game on 63 percent shooting) and freshman Ed Pinckney (71 percent) and let them bang away. But when Connecticut's zone allowed Pinone only one shot in the second half on Saturday, the Wildcats didn't have the outside shooting.

Villanova point guard Stewart Granger or freshman swing man Dwayne McClain must hit some shots from the perimeter, or the Hoyas could be successful with a similar zone.

The matchup the fans will be most interested in, however, will be Pinone versus Ewing. Ewing has been ineffective on offense lately, but is capable of dominating any game. The same applies for Pinone.

Their styles are different. Ewing must be denied the ball, Perno said. "You just can't let him get the ball. But Pinone is different. You can let him get the ball, but you have to stop him from bulling to the basket. He's not as quick as Patrick, but he's crafty around the basket, one of the best low-post players in the country."

Ewing has been criticized for being overly aggressive with elbows early in his rookie year, and Pinone has suffered the same criticism.

"As many times as I've seen Pinone play, as rugged as he is," Perno said, "I've never seen him get into a fight. And by now, after a half-season of experience, I think Patrick knows what he can and cannot do underneath the basket. I expect it to be rough around the basket, but not dirty."

On the national scene, Idaho suffered its first defeat after 16 victories, 53-51, at the hands of Montana Saturday night. Montana guard Doug Selvig hit a four-foot follow-up with one second left in the Big Sky Conference game in Missoula, Mont.

Still unbeaten are Missouri (16-0), an 84-64 winner over Oklahoma Saturday night, and Texas (14-0), which routed South Carolina, 88-71.