John Thompson smiled at the questioner who asked if trying to replace graduated seniors Gene Smith and Fred Brown would cause a major transition for Georgetown.

"Next year will be the transition year," Thompson said. And everyone got his meaning.

This is center Patrick Ewing's senior season. Major transitions are for tomorrow. The Hoyas, in 7-foot Ewing, have the best player in college basketball. Ewing's expanded role as a senior should keep the defending national champions as sharp as they were last season.

One of the things that will be expected of Ewing this season, Thompson said yesterday, is "what he's already been doing: to make the team better. Just his presence in the middle offensively frees other people because he draws two and three defenders. And our other players have to capitalize."

Then there's the responsibility of being a senior, which Thompson doesn't treat lightly. "Also, we expect him to lend his leadership now, just as we expected the same thing from Freddie and Gene and the other seniors," Thompson said.

"He's got to instill confidence in the younger players, particularly the freshmen, on the floor. He's got to be able to put them in places that game-slippage situations might cause them to lose. Young kids know a lot in practice that they don't seem to know in games because of excitement and atmospheric things. And you expect Patrick and your seniors to be able to place them. They were doing it Saturday (against Southern Connecticut), telling people to go here or there. You have to play for yourself and play for other people."

Thompson has been pleased not only with the way Ewing has handled team responsibilities, but also his celebrity status.

"We played one game in Hawaii where the referee was trying to get his picture taken with Patrick," Thompson said. "I heard the guy on the jump ball situation, saying to a photographer, 'Hey, did you get the picture?' "

Referees' obsessions with Ewing surely won't be as intense as those of opposing defenses. After three games, Ewing is averaging 12 points and nine rebounds, playing only 23 minutes. That scoring average might not rise very much, but it doesn't mean he isn't effective.

"There's two games going on," Thompson said. "Stopping Ewing and beating Georgetown. That's an advantage of having Patrick. Even teams that we have beaten, we'll read the next day that they've 'contained' Patrick. We get a kick out of that and hope they will continue to try to contain Patrick and not Georgetown. That's what you'd call a moral victory. People come back and say, 'Well, we stopped Ewing,' or, 'Ewing's never played well against us'; I've read that several times."

That teams spend so much time worrying about Ewing, to the point of assigning two or three men to guard him, and not as much about Georgetown's other talented players, surprises Thompson.

"Three and four people playing him, that's amazing," he said. "We talk about that in practice. Even if we play a team that we're far superior to, they'll put almost the whole team on Patrick. As I told the kids on the team, it makes it so much easier for some of them to get opportunities to score because people spot up on Patrick so much.

"If he's absorbed that kind of attention and we've been able to play well, then he's accomplished what he's supposed to have accomplished."

When asked if he wanted Ewing to begin taking over games offensively, Thompson said, "It's not necessary at all. If we had awful shooters, awful players, he'd have to do that. But the beauty of Patrick Ewing is that he does what he has to do to contribute to a team. I think the average fan perceives the game as offense, period. But he does take over a game, more than anybody in college basketball."