After two years in the uncomfortable position of being the overwhelming favorite to win the Big East Conference basketball tournament, Georgetown Coach John Thompson wasn't about to sit quietly today when it was suggested the Hoyas are on an equal footing with St. John's and Syracuse.

"Nooooo, no," Thompson said, recognizing a chance to pay back his colleagues. "Those suckers have kept the monkey on my back for years. I'm not going to let them off that easily. St. John's and Syracuse are the favorites."

When the Big East tournament moves into its quarterfinal stage Thursday, with afternoon and night doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden in New York, fifth-ranked St. John's will be the top-seeded team and eighth-ranked Syracuse will be the No. 2 seed. Both finished with 14-2 records to tie for the regular-season title.

But most here give the 14th-ranked Hoyas an equal shot at winning this tournament for the fifth time in its seven-year existence.

"Don't believe what John's saying," said St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca, a close friend of Thompson's. "Tell him we don't value his opinion . . . Anyway, all of this is talk. I'm glad none of us have to swear to anything."

Talking stops and playing begins at 1 p.m. Thursday when Syracuse (23-4, 14-2) faces seventh-seeded Boston College (13-14, 4-12).

Georgetown (22-6) will be heavily favored to beat beleaguered Pitt (15-12, 6-10) in a game that will begin at 3. The first night game, at 7, will match St. John's (27-4, 14-2) against Seton Hall. And the day's finale will match fourth-seeded Villanova (21-12, 10-6) against fifth-seeded Providence (15-12, 7-9).

One thing appears relatively clear -- only four teams have a good shot at winning the tournament: St. John's, Syracuse, Georgetown and Villanova.

The Hoyas seem in some ways to have the upper hand over the two favorites. It's difficult to imagine St. John's beating Georgetown three times in one season. And the Hoyas know they rattled Syracuse 10 days ago by coming from 18 points down, in the Carrier Dome, to lose by only a point.

The semifinal round Friday should match Georgetown and Syracuse -- although a Boston College victory wouldn't be a shock -- and St. John's and Villanova. The final will be played Saturday night at 7.

Thompson, although he cast his team in the role of underdog, is encouraged.

"I think this team has done very well," Thompson said. "Extremely well, based on what I see to be the deficiencies and places where we need improvement."

Pitt certainly hopes to have improved since Saturday's 93-62 loss at Georgetown. "I think they know they were embarrassed," Pitt Coach Roy Chipman said. "I know they can play better, and I hope Georgetown is not as good as we saw."

Thompson is making sure his players forget what happened Saturday. "Pitt can play well, too," he said. "They beat us there on Jan. 2 pretty good. It's just a matter of which Pitt team will show up."

Seton Hall, St. John's first opponent, defeated Connecticut, 76-66, tonight in a game between teams that tied for eight place in the conference. The Pirates' Mark Bryant was the high scorer with 18 points and had 11 rebounds. Seton Hall successfully pressed Connecticut, which was playing without point guard Earl Kelley.

Carnesecca won the league's coach-of-the-year award, as voted by his peers, for the third time in the past four years. "The honor is nice, especially when you're in the twilight," said Carnesecca, in his 36th year as a coach.

Carnesecca said he feels his star center-forward, 6-foot-8 junior Walter Berry, a strong candidate for national player of the year who today was named a first-team all-America by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, is sincere when he says he will return to college for his senior year.