"The momentum is picking up." John Thompson said those words. The momentum is picking up. He said it softly, almost sadly. The momentum is picking up.

This isn't the momentum that produces basketball victories. This melancholy momentum is the reputation for unrestrained aggression, deserved or not, that is attaching itself to Georgetown University's basketball team. This momentum is destructive in a hundred ways, and John Thompson knows it.

He saw the ugly stuff the other night. A punch thrown by a St. John's player, striking a Hoya in the jaw. Another scuffle minutes later. Two dozen players rushing onto the court each time, with 17,000 spectators wondering if this would be the riot Thompson predicted. He saw the ugly stuff, and he's fed up with it.

"Last night was the most frustrating," the coach said yesterday. "I'm sick about the situation. For the first time, I sat there and felt, 'What the hell is this?'

"Without placing blame on either side, for the first time I felt I was part of a three-ring circus. 'God damn, what is this?' There was such an emotional level to the atmosphere. Because of what happened in the other game, I came out last night braced for something to happen.

"The momentum is picking up . . . For the first time, I wondered last night, 'What the hell, am I a boxing manager or a basketball coach?' "

Thompson said he would talk to his team about it at yesterday's practice.

"I don't know what I'll say. The actions in the game are confusing to me in relation to the vibes we have with St. John's. Louie (Carnesecca, the coach) and I have a good relationship. But there are some things I have to say to the team.

"I want them to play tough, to play hard. But we definitely have to pull the reins back. Nobody likes to feel shabby, and I'm about to that point. I'll talk about basketball. I'll tell them we want people to describe the beauty of the game itself, and not these feelings of tenseness because of the atmospheres we play in."

The cruelly insensitive signs denigrating Patrick Ewing are part of the problem. But there is more to Georgetown's reputation, and the atmosphere that comes with it, than signs held by idiots. Deserved or not--and I don't think it is, although we could argue it for days--Georgetown's reputation is: "They're arrogant, aloof and they dare you to knock that big chip off their shoulders (to quote a Southern coach)."

The melancholy momentum is picking up. Three straight times now, Georgetown-St. John's games have included fist fights. A half-dozen times in their last 13 games with Big East Conference teams, the Hoyas have squared off with their dukes up. We could argue this is jealousy, this is envy, this is cheap, racist stuff provoked by petty opponents who don't like to lose to a team whose coach and star are 7-foot black men.

Whatever caused the incidents is almost incidental now. It would be easier to believe it is cheap racism if all other teams in the Big East started five white players and had all white coaches. None does. Critics of Georgetown's manner say the Hoyas are too quick to rise to unreasonable anger, then look to throw an elbow if not a punch. The critics cite chapter and verse, with film as evidence.

In any case, damage is being done. These latest incidents build the momentum of a reputation careening downhill. Yet the lead referee of the Georgetown-St. John's game said yesterday that Georgetown was the innocent victim, not the aggressor.

"As far as I can see," said Hank Nichols, "Georgetown didn't cause anything. The St. John's player (Billy Goodwin) just punched (David Wingate) right in the jaw. I was so flabbergasted when it happened I almost couldn't blow my whistle. I'm still flabbergasted. I haven't seen anyone punched like that in a long, long time."

Nichols praised Thompson for helping restore order after all players from both benches rushed onto the floor.

Contrary to assumptions, Nichols said, the officials had no orders to keep the game under tight control. He said he didn't even know the teams had fought last month.

The Big East Conference isn't worried. Spokesman Tom McElroy said, "Did you see at the end of the game? John Thompson walked off with his arm around Chris Mullin (St. John's star). Everyone shook hands. We don't see a problem, and the Big East doesn't intend to act on anything. We've had no complaints from coaches or athletic directors."

Maybe the Big East has no problem, but Georgetown does and John Thompson knows it. Ultimately, a coach is responsible for his team's reputation. That's why he talked to his players yesterday.

Maybe he told the bench-warmers to shut their mouths during games (as St. John's Kevin Williams sat at the scorer's table to enter the game, Hoyas sub David Blue jawed with the fellow who provoked last month's fight).

Maybe Thompson told Ewing to keep his elbows out of the way when he runs into a defender (barely three minutes into the St. John's game, Ewing unnecessarily crashed an elbow into a guard's face, setting a tone of no-holds-barred).

Maybe, too, the coach told his players that life's load is pretty heavy even without carrying a chip on your shoulder.