Georgetown University's men's basketball team, the defending NCAA Division I champion currently ranked No. 1 in the country, has set standards other teams in this area would like to equal. In the past two months, Washington Post staff writers have examined the basketball programs at universities in the Washington area, including Georgetown's. The series begins today.

Opponents and critics hardly can wait until next year. With all-America center Patrick Ewing having graduated, they figure it finally will be time to get back at Georgetown and its noncomformist coach, John Thompson, for winning all those basketball games.

Probably, they will have to wait beyond next year to see that day. In a word-association game, Georgetown, the defending national champion and top-ranked team in the country, is now synonymous with college basketball. And that is unlikely to change just because Ewing will have moved on.

"Don't plan on us losing when Patrick is gone," Thompson says. "It's a big hole to fill. But people meet challenges. I will miss him an awful lot. But just as I hope he hasn't developed a dependency on us, I hope we haven't developed a dependency on him."

Thompson already has taken steps to ensure that doesn't happen. He has been recruiting some of the nation's best players. And, after the Hoyas' 20-point victory last Saturday over No. 2 ranked De Paul, everyone is saying Georgetown is favored to become the first school to win consecutive NCAA championships since UCLA in 1972-73.

At least seven players from this year's team will return next year. Opponents and adversaries should know, the pantry is well-stocked.

It seems ironic that Georgetown is only the second most-popular basketball team in this area. While Maryland posted the 20th best attendance mark in the nation last year, Georgetown didn't crack the top 40.

While Georgetown had only one sellout last year, and expects only two or three this year, other top programs have them routinely. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the lack of college ambiance at Capital Centre and the logistics involved with playing "home" games in Landover.

Even so, Thompson said Georgetown probably will play its home games at Capital Centre next year. Thompson has said there is a difference between excitement and winning. And Thompson said he always will take the latter.

And Georgetown will probably continue to win if Thompson stays. But there are those who wonder if Thompson may decide to pursue other interests, particularly if he wins another national championship.

What would keep a man, as bright and with as many interests as Thompson, working toward a goal he has already reached twice?

In a recent interview about the success and direction of Georgetown basketball, Thompson was asked how winning a national title might affect his future.

"It makes me feel better," Thompson said, "when you think about the number of people (24 coaches) who have won national championships. But within the context of coaching and basketball, there are a number of other goals.

"There are new challenges every day. Every team has a different set of problems and joys. It's still stimulating to me. When it ceases to be stimulating, I'll get out of it. I felt that way at St. Anthony's (High School) at the end; the experiences became boring and I got in a rut. But that isn't the case here.

"I don't know whether I would maybe spend as much time at it as I have (if he had it to do over again) when you put it into perspective. It's somewhat narrow and somewhat fanatical. I wonder in my own mind if the people who are the most successful aren't the most insignificant.

"The joy of coaching, though, is that if any one aspect of its gets on your nerves, you can seek refuge in any other area. I enjoy the personal relationships."

Nevertheless, many people involved with college basketball have problems dealing with Georgetown. Occasionally, tournament officials and other coaches have become upset with Thompson because his players often aren't available for appearances or interviews, or because Georgetown is a hard-line negotiator in scheduling.

The excellence of Georgetown's basketball teams has often been overshadowed by talk of "Hoya Paranoia." Some people think Thompson thrives on the criticism and tries to create an "us-against-them" atmosphere at Georgetown.

Probably, those people are overestimating the criticism's impact. Thompson has said on several occasions, "Nobody likes to read negative things about himself," but he will not change his approach to please outsiders. "We don't deal a lot around here with others' perception of us," he said.

As in most situations, the players take a cue from their coach. Speaking of the small crowds at Capital Centre, for example, Michael Jackson, Georgetown's junior point guard, said, "We don't play for the media or the crowd or anybody else. We have objectives and goals and we work within ourselves toward reaching them."

Without question, Thompson and his teams have done that. When Thompson came to Georgetown 12 years ago, the then-president of the university, Rev. Robert J. Henle, said he hoped the new coach would improve the team enough to make the NIT every couple of years. The Hoyas had won only 15 of 52 games the previous two seasons.

Of course, Georgetown exceeded those expectations long ago. Thompson's only losing season was his first. And Georgetown has been to the NCAA tournament six consecutive years, to the Final Four twice in the last three years.

Some may ask, "Now what?"

Said Thompson, "My personal goal is to maintain the level of excellence. I can think, off the top of my head, of a lot of room for improvement, academically and athletically."

As is custom at Georgetown, people who are in position to know about such things don't discuss academic issues as they pertain to players. Georgetown President Rev. Timothy Healy, when asked to describe basketball's place in the larger university picture, said, "It's an excuse for some youngsters to get an education." And under Thompson, 44 of 46 seniors have graduated.

Athletically, one might think there is no room for improvement. But Thompson's standards of measurement are probably a lot different than those of the average basketball fan.

One of Thompson's new directions, in fact, is finding better ways to motivate students academically. Having become one of the most recognizable sports figures in Washington, he is asked to speak publicly almost every day. He often accepts the opportunity to address teen-agers.

"Money is a way to motivate kids, just like athletics," Thompson said. "But athletics has been fully exploited. The whole financial world -- the science of money -- has to be exploited in motivating kids. They aren't enlightened as to what capitalistic society is about. That's what fascinates me now.

"I talk to the players all the time about my financial affairs," Thompson said. "Basketball is fine, and so are their classes, but I've been asking myself, 'Am I contributing to the realistic education of these kids?' I tell them how much I can get for wearing a tennis shoe, or demand for a speaking engagement . . .

"I'm not interested in talking all the time about whether Georgetown plays George Washington. There is a world out there which basketball can contribute to besides the scoreboard."

Thompson said he fluctuates on what basketball's place should be in education, and at Georgetown. "Sometimes, I think it's the most important thing in the world," he said. "And at that time I'm probably wrong. Then, I say it's the silliest thing in the world, and I'm wrong then, too."

Such an approach probably only will make Thompson more effective in recruiting nationally, which Georgetown does as much as any team. Horace Broadnax, the first guard off the bench, is from Plant City, Fla. Ewing is from Cambridge, Mass.

And witness the freshman class: guard Kevin Floyd is from Los Angeles. Ronnie Highsmith, a 25-year-old veteran of the Army, is from Robersonville, N.C. Grady Mateen, the 6-foot-10 center who apparently will succeed Ewing, came to Georgetown from Akron, Ohio. Perry McDonald, an extremely versatile 6-4 player, is from New Orleans.

Of the five players on the team who are from this region, only Billy Martin (McKinley Tech) went to high school in Washington, D.C.

Healy called the basketball team "a rallying point," and said it has provided "the same value as the theater or ballet with the edge of competition to it."

Thompson talked about how the team has served "as a flagship, and shown alumni (who come to see basketball) that there are a lot more things going on here than basketball."

But for the next three months, when people think about Georgetown it will often be in the context of how the basketball team is doing.

There are opposing coaches who insist that not even Georgetown, which does almost everything in an unconventional manner, can escape the pressure attendant with defending the national title.

Thompson has heard enough about the pressure to win this year and the pressure to stay on top and maintain the best basketball team in the country.

"Some people spend their entire lives talking about pressure," Thompson said. "Pressure is those people in Pittsburgh who were laid off from the steel mills and can't find jobs, or those people in Detroit who lost their jobs with the auto industry and are trying to make ends meet.

"Now that's real pressure, much more than me trying to maintain being No. 1."

Next: Maryland