Three days before the semifinal round of the NCAA East Regional, Georgetown Coach John Thompson said he thinks he may have learned something.
"It's like being on national TV," he said. "The first time you're on, you spend all your time looking at yourself in the mirror. The 10th time you're on, you look at the game."
Brace yourselves, Hoyas haters, because the siege mentality you perceived might be gone. On the verge of their second straight national basketball championship, the Hoyas have stopped admiring themselves and have adopted a remarkably relaxed pose. It is one of cool bred from experience, as Thompson, the formerly forbidding one, will tell you.
"It only lasted one year, and that was last year," he said. "It's probably experience. I used to wonder why my father wasn't as excitable as he used to be. I'm probably just as anxious as I used to be, I still get nervous about the same things. But you deal with the things you can control."
Of course, it's easy to be generous when you are No. 1 in the country, appear unbeatable and have one national championship flag hung from your rafters. That last small fact may account more than anything for Georgetown's relatively charming demeanor as it prepares to meet Loyola of Chicago Thursday in Providence, R.I.
The Hoyas went through last year in a permanently defensive crouch, inviting all comers, and the pressure of that championship season permeated McDonough Gym and made it a decidedly unpleasant place. But if there is pressure now in being No. 1 and the defending champion, it is nowhere to be seen. Two Final Fours and a title have made it all seem routine.
"It gives you a sense of security," reserve center Ralph Dalton said. "You know it's there, it's in your grasp. You can see it, you've done it before and you want to work harder to do it again."
"We know there aren't any shortcuts," guard Michael Jackson said. "We can't put out 90 percent here and 20 percent there. We know what it takes. Last year, we didn't."
Thompson lounged in the gym with a cup of coffee and a pipe, dispensing wisdom through tobacco smoke. Lounging is a privilege of the wealthy, and right now Georgetown basketball has an air of the very, very, rich.
"Experience causes you not to be as affected by all the fanfare," Thompson said. "When we first went we might have been a little gun-shy of all the attention . . . Most of the kids have been to two Final Fours already. It's not a new thing with them. They know what time of year it is."
But for all of the comfort of being No. 1, the Hoyas would just as soon ditch the unbeatable label. They were, after all, beaten twice this season, by Syracuse and St. John's. For what it was worth.
"I don't think any team should be unbeatable, or it would take all the fun out of the sport," Thompson said. "That's the challenge, the up-and-down part."
But what a strange coincidence it is that as the chances of anybody toppling Georgetown become smaller and smaller, the wider the door to McDonough opens. More and more, it appears that the easiest way to beat the Hoyas, other than arsenic, is to catch them on a bad day, and play the game of your life. Even Thompson is hard-pressed to think of what he might do if he were in his competition's position.
"I don't think I'm honest enough to tell you if I knew," he said.
Teams have tried a range of defenses that stretch the imagination, they have tried running and they have tried stalling. The only difference in results was in the manner of their execution -- slow and painful or quick and painful.
"We've been beaten twice, so there must be a way," Jackson said. "But they have to play their best game."
The slowdown has worked as well as anything. But, as Jackson says, "You can't slow the pace if you're behind." Which most teams tend to be.
Jackson did have a little helpful advice: Some teams tend to overplay the Hoyas, experimenting in an effort to find something that works, instead of sticking to what they know.
"You can't change from what you do best," he said. "You don't change for just one team."
For all the show of humility, the Hoyas still can indulge in a little self-satisfaction. After all, if they don't know how to beat Georgetown, who does?
"I like to think we have to beat ourselves to lose," senior forward Bill Martin said.