It wouldn't make sense to compare Ralph Dalton to Patrick Ewing, any more than it would have made sense to compare Swen Nater to Bill Walton, or, for that matter, John Thompson to Bill Russell. In each case the starter was a graceful, thunderously balletic athlete, a singular talent of his generation. Obviously, in comparison his backup would suffer grievously, would appear clumsy and leaden.

So no matter how nice a game Dalton had Thursday in relief of foul-ridden Ewing, playing 23 minutes as Georgetown ironed Connecticut, 93-62, Thompson didn't insult himself or either of the principals by trying to equate a once-in-a-lifetime player with a once-in-a-while one. "We are a better team with Patrick Ewing on the floor," Thompson said even as Dalton was dressing just a few feet away. "Believe me, my stomach churns a lot less, and I feel a lot more comfortable with Patrick out there."

This was no slight to Dalton any more than it would have been a slight to Nater had John Wooden said he felt more comfortable with Walton out there, or a slight to Thompson had Red Auerbach said he preferred Russell out there.

Who wouldn't feel more comfortable with Ewing out there?

I would. You would.

Even Dalton would.

He might have spent the last four years in Ewing's shadow, but he's always been able to see the light.

"I came to Georgetown thinking I wanted to be a part of Georgetown, and I wanted to win. That's all I thought of," Dalton said. "I wasn't thinking about starting; I was thinking about winning." In the four years that Dalton has been at Georgetown -- The Ewing Years, as they will be recalled -- the Hoyas have won one national championship tournament, finished second in another and won 124 of 146 games. "I like to win. It doesn't make a difference to me who's out on the floor. I'll sit on the bench the whole game if it calls for that for us to win."

That's why it's nice to see Dalton have a game like this one, to have his minutes and his moment, however brief, however unappreciated by a crowd that came to see Ewing, not him. Dalton's line in the boxscore is not exactly "To be, or not to be." He scored four points and got six rebounds in his 23 minutes. But the 23 minutes were the most he has played all season. Normally he plays 10. Normally he scores one basket and gets two rebounds. Normally he's in there for garbage time. This time he was in there for prime time.

Now you might think that since it was against Connecticut, it was no big deal that Ewing played only nine minutes in the first half, and that he went to the bench to stay with 9:27 left in that half. Don't be an idiot. The score was 27-22 when Ewing sat down with three fouls, and while Connecticut might not be Duke or De Paul, the Huskies have beaten Syracuse twice this season, and Syracuse, you might recall, has beaten Georgetown. The fact is that with Ewing off the court, Georgetown is less than invincible on it. You could hardly blame Dom Perno, the Connecticut coach, for dreaming impossible dreams when he saw Dalton replace Ewing.

So it is significant that from the 9:27 mark to the close of the first half, with Dalton in the middle, Georgetown stretched its five-point lead to 11. And that in the 10 minutes that Dalton played in the second half, Georgetown scored 10 more points than Connecticut. Not that he did it by himself. Far from it. "Some of the other coaches in the Big East have said that Patrick has a tendency to intimidate people, and even when Patrick's not on the floor, their players are looking for him. So I don't know if it was as much me, as Patrick's reputation," Dalton said graciously.

But it ought to mean something to everyone concerned that Dalton did exactly what a good back-up is supposed to: hold the fort, not surrender it. "Sometimes it's not too pretty," Dalton said of his playing style that most closely resembles a test vehicle on a crash course. "But I like to think I get the job done." Ewing, who practices against Dalton each day and says joyfully of those sessions, "they're rough; he beats the hell out of me," said he had no qualms when Dalton replaced him. "I wasn't worried because I knew he could handle it." Neither was Thompson hesitant to use Dalton. "The good thing about Ralph," Thompson said, "is that he does what you want him to do. I have said this before, and I'll say it now. Had Ralph not gotten the injury, I think he would have been a first-round draft choice."

It's moot now, but at 6 feet 11 and 240 pounds, a healthy Dalton might have been to Georgetown for four years what Michael Graham was for one. But during the intrasquad Blue-Gray game before the start of his freshman season, Dalton tore up his right knee so badly that doctors told him he might never play basketball again. He sat out that season, rehabilitated the knee to the point where he could play, even if it looked like he was lurching rather than running, and wrote himself a happy ending.

"The way I think about the injury now is that it's something that helped me," Dalton said as he adjusted a brace to his right leg and carefully pulled his trouser leg over the metal; he wears one type of brace or another all the time, on and off the court. "It made a better person out of me, a more mature person. It made me a better player in a sense because it made me smarter; I know there are things I can't do as fast as other players, so I have to rely on intelligence. Honestly, I've been able to find nothing but positives about that injury." He smiled. "Other than the pain."

There are no regrets, he says. Not at the injury. And not at coming to Georgetown and sitting behind Ewing for all these years. "I never once thought of leaving," he said. "I've enjoyed my time here immensely. I don't think I'd trade it for anything else in my life."