When John Thompson says getting to the Final Four is more difficult than actually winning the national championship, people sometimes look at him in disbelief.

But by now, Thompson is an expert on getting to the Final Four. Defending NCAA champion Georgetown, with its East Regional final victory over Georgia Tech Saturday in Providence, R.I., now has advanced to the Final Four for the third time in four years.

Georgetown's reward in Lexington, Ky., Saturday will be a fourth meeting this season with St. John's, which won the West Regional yesterday.

Georgetown, ranked No. 1 in the polls for all but five weeks since the end of November, was so strongly favored to reach the Final Four that any lesser achievement would have seemed a disappointment.

After reaching that goal, perhaps now some of the pressure is really off the Hoyas (34-2), who have won 16 straight games since back-to-back losses to St. John's and Syracuse in late January. It's difficult to imagine a game having more tension than Georgetown-Georgia Tech.

"It's getting harder and harder on me," Thompson said. "I always said it's harder getting to the Final Four than it is to win the national championship. Once you're there, you have to win two games, even though they're two very tough games. But to get to the Final Four, you have to sustain a level of excellence and concentration for four games.

"Everybody's worried about how hard (the Tech game) was on the kids," Thompson said. "They better worry about how hard it is on a 43-year-old coach, 'cause it's killing me."

The Final Four trip means many things for Georgetown. It means the school stands to make as much as $800,000. But that really doesn't mean as much to Thompson and his players as it does to the school's administrators.

It means Georgetown has become one of only two schools in the last 10 years to make it to the national semifinals three times in four years. Houston qualified three straight times before this season, but did not win a national title as the Hoyas have already done.

It means that people making milk and athletic shoe commercials will continue coming to Thompson as a spokesman. Those television appearances, as much as any byproduct of this sustained success, surely will only augment Georgetown's recruiting success.

But Thompson and his team will have plenty of time to think about all that later, especially since the thoughts would be so much sweeter after a second national championship, which would be the first time a team won back-to-back titles since UCLA in 1972-73.

For a while Saturday, it looked as if Georgia Tech, the Atlantic Coast Conference champion, would deny Georgetown that opportunity.

A big first-half lead slipped away as Georgetown failed to run the "four-to-score" spread offense the way Thompson wanted it. Had Georgetown lost, Thompson's decision to spread the court would have been second-guessed for a long time.

But Thompson knew his team was in foul trouble (four regulars wound up with at least four fouls), and as he explained, "We really were trying to score, but the kids were tentative. They stood out in front. But I 'stood' a lot mentally on the bench, too."

But the Hoyas, even with all-America Patrick Ewing missing nearly 13 minutes of the second half with four fouls, came back to win. Thompson, with the aid of hindsight, reflected on just why his team played well enough to win.

"We've played without Patrick before," Thompson said. "And sometimes, when he's not on the floor, the other players are more aware of their roles. It's a conditioned response. You don't think about it. You just have to go up to a higher level. They've been in NCAA tournament games before, in title games.

"But there's no pressure like the NCAA tournament," Thompson added. "Everybody knows what's at stake and that just doubles the pressure." Thompson also had kind words for the Yellow Jackets, who he called "as good a team as we've played all year.

"That's the crazy thing about this tournament," he said. "I've been that way before (1983 championship game loss by one point to North Carolina) with a few seconds to go. We lost it and felt like losers."

That's probably how Georgia Tech all-America guard Mark Price, a 49 percent shooter, felt after making only three of 16 shots.

"He's a good shooter," Georgetown's Reggie Williams said. "I'm sure he'll hit them any other time. There's always tomorrow, but not this season."

For the Hoyas, there is now a third season. And if Georgetown can win two more games, Saturday afternoon and Monday night, this team will be called a dynasty.

Most coaches agree that it's much harder to get to the Final Four now than it was when UCLA got there 10 consecutive times through 1976 under John Wooden.

"Those days are over," Thompson said. "I just don't think you'll see that kind of domination again."

Probably not. But Thompson's team is two victories away from a domination college basketball hasn't seen in 10 years.