It is February now, the crucial month in John Thompson's ground-floor-up team construction, the month before The Month.

The Hoyas, who will play the Pittsburgh Panthers Saturday at 3 p.m. in Fitzgerald Field House (WRC-TV-4), possess a No. 14 ranking, a 17-6 overall record, a 7-3 record in the Big East Conference, and numerous questions.

Hovering overhead throughout this season have been the inevitable comparisons to last year's team. Finishing one basket shy of the NCAA title, as the Hoyas did last year, will make people talk.

But the fact is, a team doesn't lose seniors like Eric Floyd, Eric Smith, Mike Hancock and Ed Spriggs, replace them with freshmen and sophomores, and expect to improve.

A 17-6 record is hardly a cruel fate, mind you. But there are trends and facts to be aware of:

Most eminently, Georgetown simply cannot survive when Patrick Ewing, the 7-foot sophomore center, is out because of foul trouble. The Hoyas are 1-4 in games Ewing has fouled out of this season, 16-2 when he does not foul out.

Ewing averages 16.8 points, 10 rebounds, 3.7 blocked shots a game. But he has committed at least three fouls a game the past 17 games, has missed key parts of these games and, as Coach John Thompson says, "I can't help but feel let down when Patrick is sitting next to me."

Furthermore, the half-court offense suffers because of equal parts inexperience and impatience.

Last week at Capital Centre, for example, Georgetown led St. John's by five points with 16:37 to play. It was a time that begged for the controlled cool of Floyd and Eric Smith.

But these young Hoyas are a bit passive still. Talented, but passive. They went nine minutes without a basket, working so inefficiently on offense, and the experienced Redmen drilled them into the ground.

Problems with the offense begin when opposing defenses surround Ewing with two or three players and the Hoyas don't know how to respond. Sometimes perimeter shooters like freshmen David Wingate and Michael Jackson don't shoot at all and a turnover results from poor passing or overpassing.

"Wingate and Michael Jackson have to be less passive on offense," Thompson has said repeatedly. And sometimes, perimeter shooters like Jackson, Wingate or Anthony Jones, a season-long disappointment, simply miss.

These offensive problems are further compounded now that junior guard Fred Brown, the Hoyas' most experienced ball-control player, is likely out until the Big East tournament, which starts in three weeks. Brown has a strained patella tendon in his right knee.

Even though Brown has been limping all season, often slowing the fast break, it is unfair to say that now his presence won't be missed.

It will.

No other Hoya can protect the ball like Brown. Thompson says Brown could play now, but that he does not want him to return too soon.

So for now, the guards are Wingate (12.5 points) and Jackson (10.9). Wingate is a marvelous shooter, especially on those short banks. Too frequently, though, some of that Baltimore Dunbar High School flashiness takes him out of control, causing charging fouls and turnovers.

Sometimes Jackson reminds you of Floyd--like in his 31-point performance in the 97-92 victory at Syracuse. Other times, he does not. His shooting percentage is down to 43 percent, after making just 20 of 59 shots the past five games. He has a team-high 69 turnovers.

The strengths of the team--many of which branch off Ewing--are many. The defense, the vehicle to last year's championship game, is suffocating. Be it a 2-3 or a 1-3-1 zone defense or a man-to-man defense, the Hoyas have caused opponents to shoot a sickly 42 percent and to commit nearly 18 turnovers a game. (Of course, the Hoyas average nearly 17 turnovers.)

Further, the increased consistency of sophomore Bill Martin, whose 12.3 scoring and 7.0 rebounding averages mean he can rightfully be called a power forward, is crucial.

And in Brown's absence, reserve junior guard Gene Smith's experience becomes even more important. Thompson says he likes Smith, whose 50 steals indicate a player of supreme defensive talent, to come off the bench.

Ralph Dalton, the 6-9 sophomore center who missed all of last season because of an injured right knee, shows increased mobility but still wobbles on one leg.

Of the Hoyas' top nine players, three are freshman, four are sophomores, two are juniors. "We don't have a lot of old people," Thompson says. "With Freddie out, we'll do the best we can with what we've got."