Are the Georgetown Hoyas still one of the nation's elite college basketball teams? Or has Coach John Thompson's program slipped into the sport's second echelon, despite the presence of two giants, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning?

"We've been hearing that lately," said Thompson, roused by the issue, after Georgetown beat Providence on Wednesday. "Well, that's what they said the year we won the national title. They said Gene Smith couldn't shoot. Nobody on that team could do this or do that. . . . We have never been any good until we showed 'em.

"We feel like we're just as elite as we're ever going to be. We feel very, very comfortable with this team. . . . We like it best when people think we should board up the windows."

Despite his protestations, there is considerable evidence that the Hoyas program in 1991 is right back where it was in 1981 before Patrick Ewing arrived: very good but not great. And the reason may be paradoxical indeed.

Thompson has always had two defining characteristics: the desire to follow his stern old-fashioned conscience and the desire to win tons of basketball games with all the concomitant rewards.

Guess what? The two don't mix. By following his principles in matters of recruiting and the personal development of his players, Thompson may well have limited the success his team can realistically expect to reach.

If you won't demean yourself and your university by aggressively recruiting teenagers -- not even a Kenny Anderson . . .

If you won't promise playing time -- not even to Mourning . . .

If you'd strangle any booster caught slipping a player clothes or a car . . .

If you jump down a kid's throat every time he misses class . . .

If you go around town busting up your players' friendships with crack dealers and murderers . . .

If you encourage high-school all-Americans to transfer out, even though their grades are okay, because you think they'd be happier elsewhere . . .

If you spend almost no time on players of the future and not too much on players of the past, but spend most of it on the players of the present . . .

If you stress defense, coats and ties and good manners instead of offense, gold jewelry and the occasional boys-will-be-boys felony charge on campus . . .

Well, is this any way to win a whole bunch more national championships?

Probably not, unfortunately. And it may be a ticket to that second echelon.

Once, the Hoyas reached the national championship game three times in four years with Ewing at center. Those glamour seasons, plus Thompson's charismatic stature in the sport, put Georgetown in position to be a power for years, like Dean Smith's Tar Heels and Bobby Knight's Hoosiers. Or -- who knew? -- perhaps even John Wooden's Bruins.

Back then, Georgetown seemed to have every conceivable recruiting advantage. You could almost guarantee a kid that, if he came to the Hilltop, he'd find: basketball glory, an education, a big-city social life, an NBA-preparatory style of play, Big East competition, sellout crowds at Capital Centre, the adulation of a basketball-crazy city. And the guiding hand of Big John.

What happened? Georgetown went right back to its level of play before Ewing ever came. Georgetown's record in the four years before Ewing (.750) is almost identical to the 5 1/2 years since he left (.773). Georgetown's record during Ewing's four year was 121-23 (.840).

In the five seasons since Ewing's graduation, Georgetown has had only two high-quality seasons. In both '87 and '89, the Hoyas went 29-5, won the Big East tournament and reached the round of eight in the NCAA Tournament.

However, the other post-Ewing years have been disappointing. Especially last year. Then, with four seniors, one of them a 20-point-a-game guard, plus those two healthy towers, Georgetown lost its second-round NCAA game for the third time in five years. To Xavier.

This season's 14-6 Georgetown team brings the issue into sharper focus. This is the last year Mutombo, a senior, and Mourning, can play together.

At the moment, the Hoyas are one of the most bizarre teams in the game. They can beat almost anybody. And they can be beaten by almost anybody. As soon as they knock off a top-ten team like Duke or St. John's, they play like a bunch of freshmen and lose to Texas El-Paso or DePaul. Of course that is because three of Georgetown's starting players are freshmen. And they play like it.

How did Georgetown basketball get this way? Because the Thompson of '91 -- though he may have changed in some personal ways -- handles his team with the same principles as he did in '81.

Although he could recruit nationally, he doesn't. Five of his top eight players are from the District, Maryland or Virginia. As usual, the New Orleans-to- Georgetown pipeline has provided a starter. Georgetown also has three international players -- from Zaire, Yugoslavia and Canada. Hot-shot American prospects may be too important to contact Georgetown about scholarships, but a Mutombo in Kinsasha isn't too proud to say, "Please, sir, may I come?"

Thompson still screams, curses and, in effect, says, "My way or the highway." He lost his entire sophomore class that way -- all supposedly blue chippers. "They left in good academic standing," says Thompson of David Edwards, Milton Bell and Michael (Tate) Venson. They weren't Thompson players. So he helped them go someplace they fit.

Some say that if Thompson hadn't coached the '88 Olympic team, he'd have recruited a sophomore class that would have fit. And Georgetown would be on the same level as Nevada-Las Vegas and Arkansas right now.

"To some extent, the Olympics interrupted what we were doing," says Thompson. "But when I look at the kids we have now, I don't feel we've left anything behind. I like them as people. You can have too many Hamburger Heroes. That's what I call those McDonald's all-Americans. I want a sound foundation {of coachable players}. You need some role players, some people who're willing to pass it to Alonzo and Dikembe."

When Thompson looks around, he sees Vegas, Arkansas and Everybody Else. He doesn't see why his Hoyas, by March, cannot be the best of the rest.

He likes his team. He likes his chances. But most of all, John Thompson likes the way he's going about doing it.