PROVIDENCE, R.I., JAN. 9 -- Georgetown Coach John Thompson has a new theory about the rate of recovery of the Hoyas' ailing forward, Alonzo Mourning. "Something tells me that if we start losing a lot," Thompson said with a grin, "he's going to get well fast."

That Thompson can be playful about a matter as serious and debilitating to his team as Mourning's injury -- and at a time like the aftermath of Tuesday night's tough, 72-69 Big East Conference loss here to Providence -- is a testament to the relatively gentle approach he's employing with this youthful team.

Not since the 1972-73 season, in his first year on the job of rebuilding a decrepit Georgetown program, has Thompson been forced to start four freshmen -- as he has done in the Hoyas' past two games. And he says he has adjusted his coaching methods, not to mention his expectations, accordingly.

"You have to love a lot more after being angry," Thompson said. "You have to be angry because you have to hold them responsible for what's going on out on the court. But . . . it's like cooking a soft-boiled egg: You have to be careful when you're taking it out of the pot. . . . You don't want to break them."

As a result, nights like Tuesday are reserved for praising what Thompson called his team's courage rather than dwelling upon its lapses. They're for finding solace in rallying from a 14-point deficit in the final 16 minutes rather than berating the mistakes that dug such a hole in the first place.

And always, there's an eye toward the future -- not years from now but weeks, when Mourning should be recovered from his month-old strained left arch and junior forward Brian Kelly will be able to provide more than the 12 minutes he lasted against Providence on a sore ankle.

"Our object right now is to improve as much as we can early in the year," Thompson said. " . . . We're not a good team yet, but eventually we will be a good team if {the players} keep working and doing what they're doing.

"Right now we're trying to steal as many games as we can and salvage as much time as we possibly can for {Mourning}, because you don't want a career-threatening injury and we tend to be kind of conservative about injuries."

Team officials, despite once suspecting that Mourning might need surgery, apparently believe the 6-foot-10 junior is not in danger of suffering any long-term damage by playing. But they want Mourning fully healed before he even resumes practicing, and Thompson said he's waiting for Mourning and doctors to give the go-ahead; the timetable for Mourning's return still is uncertain.

Meanwhile, the 15th-ranked Hoyas (9-3, 1-1 in the Big East) will try to cope without their emotional leader, and that means having the inconsistencies of their young players magnified. Never was that better in evidence than Tuesday.

One freshman, forward Robert Churchwell, was brilliant, hitting 10 of 11 field-goal attempts for a team-high 20 points. But the other three first-year starters -- Lamont Morgan, Joey Brown and Charles Harrison -- shot a combined nine for 31. Brown was scorched by Friars senior guard Eric Murdock for 30 points (including Providence's final 13 and 17 of its last 19) and Harrison sent a last-second, 35-foot bid for a tie off the back of the rim.

Yet Thompson still has nothing but lavish praise for Brown, and he commends Harrison for not losing his nerve to shoot after a few misses. The season-long company line about having to go through the experiences to learn was employed often Tuesday, after what was the first Big East road game for the Hoya Kids.

Thompson seems concerned that time is running short for his young players to get accustomed to playing with Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo together. The Hoyas may be able to survive the next 10 days -- which include games against Boston College Saturday afternoon at Capital Centre, at Villanova Monday and at Boston College the following Saturday -- without their twin towers intact; after that, however, come matchups with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and St. John's.

"We're just trying to learn and get better," Brown said. "You'd rather win when you're doing that, but I guess you've got to take your knocks too."