Brandon Bowman has noticed a subtle change when he talks about Georgetown basketball with some of his friends back home in Los Angeles. But Bowman, a versatile senior forward for the Hoyas, is also acutely aware of the one thing that separates him from his pals Hassan Adams of Arizona and Chad Bell of Nevada.

"I guess you could say they have much more respect for us. But when it comes down to it, we haven't been to the NCAA tournament," said Bowman, who helped lead a young Georgetown team to a surprising 19-15 record last season. "All my friends back home have touched the NCAA tournament, and that's something I've yet to feel. Hopefully this year will be the year."

The Hoyas were once NCAA tournament regulars, making 18 appearances in a 19-year span from 1978 to 1997, but Georgetown has qualified for only one tournament in the past seven seasons (2000-01). The Hoyas came close last season, under first-year coach John Thompson III, but a five-game losing streak late in the year cost them an at-large bid.

Georgetown's road back to the NCAA tournament begins tonight when it travels to Navy for its season opener. A great deal of buzz surrounds the Hoyas, who return seven of their top eight players, including all five starters. Forward Jeff Green, the Big East co-rookie of the year, and Bowman are two of the top players in the conference.

Overall season ticket sales have doubled since last year. More than 1,000 student season tickets have been sold, the highest total since the Hoyas moved into MCI Center in 1997. Six school buses filled with Georgetown students will travel to Annapolis.

But much of the excitement also stems from what the future holds. The player who drew the biggest cheers at Midnight Madness -- Indiana transfer Patrick Ewing Jr. -- won't be eligible to play until the 2006-07 season. Georgetown signed three players during the early signing period, including two -- center Vernon Macklin and forward DaJuan Summers -- who are ranked among the top 25 players in the senior class. And the Hoyas have already received an oral commitment from one of the top juniors in the country, DeMatha's Austin Freeman.

None of those players will be around to help the Hoyas this season, however, as they prepare to play in the bigger, better Big East. Thompson has pointed out that Georgetown could be much improved from last season, but because of the depth and strength of the new 16-team conference, it might not be reflected in the standings.

The Hoyas are more experienced, but they are still young. They have more depth, but much of it will come from untested freshmen.

"This group that we have here, from myself on down, we have to make significant strides to make the NCAA tournament," said Thompson, whose team was picked to finish sixth in the Big East in the preseason coaches poll. "Everyone has worked very hard; now we have to figure out how to be better. Just because you're a year older doesn't mean you're a year better."

The Hoyas put in the work during what Bowman called "the hardest-working offseason since I've been here." Roy Hibbert, the 7-foot-2 sophomore center, was pushed around as a freshman, so he spent extra time in the weight room, improving his strength as well as his conditioning. Bowman, an often indifferent defender, said that he worked on all aspects of his game, but put a special emphasis on his defense. Senior guard Ashanti Cook, who committed a costly turnover late in Georgetown's 66-62 loss to Connecticut in the Big East tournament, focused on his ballhandling to make sure that won't happen again.

"No off days, because we know what we want to accomplish," senior swingman Darrel Owens said.

Everything has been done with the NCAA tournament in mind. This is the first time since 1998 that the Hoyas will play their season opener away from home. Six of their 10 pre-conference games are on the road, an unusual route for a school that traditionally has prepared for Big East play by hosting a string of MEAC teams.

Thompson looked at this year's squad, which has nine freshmen and sophomores, and decided that it would be more valuable to see how the Hoyas respond in tough situations on the road rather than to stay at home and rack up wins.

"We are not the most experienced team in the world," said Thompson, whose team will travel to Oregon and No. 17 Illinois. "For us to win, for us to have success in the Big East, we're going to have to go on the road and play and win. This year, I felt that the out-of-conference schedule we put together would help us prepare. Now somedays I sit there and look at it and say, 'Ooh boy.' "

A year ago, students filed into MCI Center wearing T-shirts with "We are Georgetown" emblazoned across the front and "Some have forgotten/We will remind them" written across the back. This year, the shirts will have a new saying on the reverse: "Respect is back/Fear is next."

And with that, hopefully, a trip to the tournament.

Forward Jeff Green, the Big East's co-rookie of the year last season, hopes to pick up where he left off for a Georgetown team that returns all five starters and seven of its top eight players.Georgetown's 7-foot-2 sophomore Roy Hibbert expects to be more of a defensive force, having spent extra time with the weights in the offseason.