Georgetown Coach John Thompson insisted last week that the pertinent question is not whether the Hoyas are ready for the Big East Conference, but whether the league is ready for them. Perhaps now the query should be further amended: Which is less ready for the other?

As Georgetown took to the road yesterday en route to tonight's Big East encounter with Providence at the Civic Center, the Hoyas more closely resembled Dikembe Mutombo and the junior varsity than the nation's 15th-ranked team. Alonzo Mourning still was relegated to cheerleader duty and Brian Kelly remained a hobbling-at-best replacement; four freshmen were once again slated to start.

Yet the Hoyas (9-2, 1-0 in the Big East) also were accompanied by the new-found confidence that comes with thriving under adversity. It's one thing to beat Jackson State without Mourning. It's quite another to come away with a conference triumph minus both Mourning and Kelly and with four first-year players among a six-man rotation -- as Georgetown did in Saturday's 73-65 victory over Seton Hall at Capital Centre.

"The level of enthusiasm is up," Thompson said yesterday. "Now we have to be intelligent. . . . I think the team is improving, making courageous adjustments to what they've had to deal with. But they have to keep everything in perspective."

The schedule-makers have been kind to the Hoyas in their time of need. Seton Hall entered Saturday's game with a 9-1 record, but the Pirates were without senior point guard Oliver Taylor and are a smallish, youthful club.

Now Georgetown gets Providence (9-4, 0-2, but 9-0 at home), Boston College and Villanova. By the time the Big East heavyweights, No. 8 Syracuse, No. 17 Pittsburgh and No. 10 St. John's, come along this month, Mourning's left arch should be healed and the Hoyas' numbers crunch alleviated.

Until then, the Hoyas will rely more than they would like on freshman guards Joey Brown and Charles Harrison (who totaled 32 second-half points Saturday but are shooting a combined 38 percent), and they will cross their fingers that Mutombo avoids foul trouble.

And, for the first time in recent memory, Big East coaches want to play Georgetown next.

"You're never going to have a better opportunity to beat Georgetown," Seton Hall Coach P.J. Carlesimo said after Saturday's game.

Providence Coach Rick Barnes was less blunt yesterday -- "they're still a heck of a team, even without Alonzo or even Kelly" -- but he clearly thinks this game holds upset potential. As always, the Friars like to force an up-tempo game by pressing and shooting three-pointers -- testing the Hoyas' energy.

Georgetown's starters averaged 35 minutes of court time against Seton Hall, and Kelly's status again is questionable because of a sore ankle. "We'll get as much as we can out of him," Thompson said. "That's been our motto for this year: Get as much as we can out of people."

Brown likely will defend the Friars' lightning-quick guard, Eric Murdock. The 6-foot-2 senior, dubbed "The Man of Steal" for his pesky ways, is averaging 28.6 points per game -- including a 45-point effort against Arizona.

Otherwise, these are unsettling times for the Friars. Barnes tried to take the Virginia job in the offseason but apparently was pressured into staying. Two members of a heralded incoming freshman class (including former Dunbar High star Michael Smith) are academically ineligible. Barnes has used six starting lineups, and the Friars had an embarrassing loss to Holy Cross on Saturday.

"We're just trying to keep our heads above water," said Barnes, formerly the head coach at George Mason. "We feel like we have the foundation for a successful program here. You just have to hang in there and keep plugging along."