When Georgetown Coach John Thompson looks at today's opponent, 17th-ranked Pittsburgh, he sees his youthful Hoyas fast-forwarded a few years. The Panthers have endured the growing pains Georgetown now experiences, plus a cruel variety of ailments. Pittsburgh's time to benefit from hard knocks has arrived.

"I saw them play {on television Wednesday night}, the first time this year I'd really focused on them," Thompson said, referring to Pittsburgh's 92-79 victory at Providence. "I was very impressed. . . . They're a team whose time has come. Two or three years ago, they were playing their freshmen like we're doing now. They got through all the hardships, and now they're a junior-senior team and they've been together through it all. . . . They're a very good team."

Pittsburgh is acknowledged by the Big East Conference's coaches as the league's best. But the road to the league's upper echelons has been a twisting, exasperating one for Coach Paul Evans and the Panthers (15-4, 4-2 Big East), who will take the Civic Arena court for a matchup with the 21st-ranked Hoyas as uneasy favorites.

"I don't feel like the best team in the Big East," Evans said. "I don't want to be thought of as the best team in the Big East. We've had to deal with expectations before, and nothing but bad luck ever followed."

Evans can only wait for when he'll field a healthy team. It probably won't be today, since senior center Bobby Martin is unlikely to start because of an infected finger that has caused him to miss five games.

The recruiting class that was supposed to change Pittsburgh basketball forever -- Martin, forward Brian Shorter, swingman Darelle Porter and guards Jason Matthews and Sean Miller -- is in its fourth season and has produced one NCAA tournament win and three Big East tournament triumphs in three years. Injuries have contributed to the Panthers' distress; those five players haven't been together at full strength for over a year.

Miller redshirted last season after surgery on his left foot. Shorter struggled earlier this season with a viral infection. Martin cut and dislocated the middle finger on his right hand against Toledo Dec. 22, then 11 days later it became infected, requiring surgery. He returned to practice Thursday, and his status is day to day.

Still, the Panthers have persevered. Pittsburgh is a far deeper team than last season's 12-17 club. The reserves are averaging 25.6 points and 13.4 rebounds in 70.5 minutes per game, compared with 9.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in 31.9 minutes a year ago.

Pittsburgh is eighth in the nation in free throw percentage (75.9), hasn't allowed an opponent to top 90 points and is 8-0 at home.

"We've got some {depth}, some numbers," said Evans. "We're able to do some things defensively. We're able to hang on to leads. Last season we'd get a 15-point lead in the first half and lose the game."

Said Miller: "We want to make something happen. This is the year for it."

Georgetown (11-5, 3-3) has beaten Pittsburgh three straight times and in nine of the teams' past 11 meetings. The 6-foot-9 Martin and 6-6 Shorter have been troubled by Georgetown's 7-2 Dikembe Mutombo and 6-10 Alonzo Mourning: The Hoyas blocked 23 shots in two games against Pittsburgh last season.

These are a strangely vulnerable set of Hoyas. Freshman guards Joey Brown and Charles Harrison are shooting a combined 36 percent from the field, and Mutombo and Mourning haven't meshed offensively in the two games since Mourning's return from an arch injury that sidelined him six weeks.

Georgetown, which has dropped three of its last five games, hasn't played since Monday's 58-56 loss to No. 6 Syracuse at Capital Centre. Syracuse forward Billy Owens said Mourning told him during the game that his foot still hurt. Mourning insists it doesn't -- and a team spokesman said the junior forward practiced all week.

"It's just going to take some time for me to get back into the flow of things and for the other guys to get used to having me around again," said Mourning.

Special correspondent F.J. Lucchino contributed to this report.