Just five days and three halves of basketball ago, the Georgetown Hoyas seemed mired in a season of struggles. Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo were all but stepping on each other's feet around the basket, a jump shot that went in seemed like an unusual phenomenon and the Hoyas were on the verge of their first-ever losing record in the Big East Conference and an almost certain plummet out of the national rankings for the first time in three years.
But much has changed. Georgetown rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit on Sunday to win at 17th-ranked Pittsburgh, and the Hoyas offered 40 minutes of steady, mostly efficient play in topping No. 5 St. John's, 59-53, Wednesday night at Capital Centre.
That victory left Georgetown 13-5 -- including 5-3 and a half-game off the lead in the Big East, where every team has at least three defeats. (St. John's and Syracuse are tied for the league lead at 6-3.) The 18th-ranked Hoyas will host De Paul Sunday in a nonconference game, the second of four straight games at home.
So while Georgetown's optimism remains guarded, there at least are reasons to believe this youthful club can compete with the country's best. The Hoyas spent the early parts of the season learning to cope without the injured Mourning and finding out they could lose to anyone; now they're feeling their way through Mourning's gradual return to form and discovering they probably can beat almost anyone too.
"We're starting to feel better and better about ourselves, getting the feel for playing with each other," said Mourning, who has averaged 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in four games since a strained left arch sidelined him six weeks.
"The freshmen are starting not to be freshmen anymore, and our defense is improving," he said. "They're starting to get used to playing with me again, and I'm trying to get back into the flow. . . . We're coming around. This can be a very good team."
In some ways, these Hoyas are just like past Georgetown teams. Their defense can be suffocating: They are holding opponents to 35.5 percent field-goal accuracy -- ahead of last season's 37 percent, which set an NCAA record -- and no rival has made half its shots. They haven't gotten consistent perimeter scoring, and their offense still bogs down for long stretches -- as when they went the last 9:09 of the St. John's game without a basket.
But their salvation has come from unaccustomed sources. They made 33 of 38 free throws against Pittsburgh, then connected on their last 14 foul shots versus St. John's. They're shooting 80 percent from the line in Big East games.
And they've shown a willingness to scrap their trademark frenzied pace when the situation dictates. Slowing down the game against a potent fast-breaking team like Syracuse is one thing; getting far-from-blazing St. John's to play even more methodically than it wants is quite another. Over its past seven games, Georgetown is averaging a modest 62.9 points, its opponents 61.6.
"It was kind of shocking to see them trying to slow us down," Redmen Coach Lou Carnesecca said after watching the Hoyas' double-stack delay offense much of the second half Wednesday. "I'm not used to that. Usually you spend the whole night watching them zoom past you for layups. This time it was a long, slow death."
In their long-term planning, the Hoyas once saw this as a season of stability, with Mutombo and Mourning to be flanked by would-be veterans John Turner, Milton Bell, Michael Tate, David Edwards and Antoine Stoudamire -- all of whom have transferred. Instead, they've gotten a year of transition in which they've had to start three (and sometimes four) freshmen and utilize five newcomers within basically an eight-player rotation.
Mourning's injury set them back even further, but at the midway point of the Big East campaign they finally seem back on course. Coach John Thompson, after commending Mourning for his desire to get back into game shape, said he plans to slow down his junior forward's conditioning rush. But Thompson's prediction that the conference won't be decided until the last day of the regular season -- as well as the pledges by other Big East coaches that Georgetown likely will be the league's most improved team by that point -- now seem fairly safe.
It's still a bit early for the Hoyas' usual late-season rush, but it's February, and Thompson believes the engines at least should be revving. "Once we get into a situation where Alonzo gets into shape," Thompson said, "we'll be a better basketball team."
Carnesecca agreed. "When Mourning gets to be Mourning again, God help the rest of us," he said. "It's just a matter of time for them."
Hoyas Notes: Tipoff time for Sunday's game has been moved to 12:15 p.m. to accommodate CBS, which will televise the game. It originally was scheduled for 12:30.