Now, the truth will be learned about the Georgetown basketball team.

The 17th-ranked Hoyas play No. 7 St. John's Saturday at 3 p.m. at Madison Square Garden in Georgetown's first twirl on the no-mercy-go-round of the Big East Conference (WTTG-TV-5 will show the game on tape delay, beginning at 6 p.m.).

It's time to get serious.

"We're ready to play against anybody," said Patrick Ewing, the 7-foot sophomore center on a team that has compiled a 9-3 pre-Big East record.

This year, though, St. John's isn't just anybody, let alone the team that crumbled to defeat once, twice, three times against the Hoyas last year. St. John's is 12-0, 2-0 in the Big East.

This includes a 78-74 overtime victory over North Carolina, the defending national champion, in the nationally televised season-opener.

"That game was a wonderful effort that really gave us a shot in the arm," said Lou Carnesecca, the St. John's coach whose players call him, with fearful affection, "Little Looie the Tyrant."

"Last year, we felt if we beat Georgetown it would be an upset," said Billy Goodwin, St. John's senior forward, averaging 12 points per game. "This year, they have to come and get us."

Those are fighting words, of course. Georgetown's Gene Smith, junior guard, says simply, "We know who they are. They know who we are. And that's the way it is."

For the Hoyas, the road of momentum has been cluttered with detours this season. Beyond the losses to Virginia, American and Alabama, Georgetown now starts its Big East Conference season without forward Anthony Jones (dislocated left elbow, likely out for three more weeks) and with guard Fred Brown still limping because of knee problems. "I'm only about 75 percent now," Brown says.

Both Jones and Brown are crucial remnants of last year's team which followed the road of momentum all the way to the championship game of the NCAA tournament.

"Things like that are unfortunate circumstances that you have to deal with," said John Thompson, the Georgetown coach. "A lot of things occur during a season. You just have to grit your teeth and deal with them.

"Coordinating the team effort is tough," Thompson said. "How soon it comes, you never know."

Right now, the world is aglow for St. John's. The 12-0 start is its best since the 1949-50 season, when the Redmen did not lose until their 13th game of the year. Nine players, including the entire starting five, return from last season's 21-9 team.

Each of Carnesecca's 14 previous seasons at St. John's have included a postseason appearance, nine times in the NCAA tournament, five times in the NIT. Carnesecca says of this team, "I don't even think we've been playing that well yet."

This is the minority opinion. Besides North Carolina, the Redmen's hit list includes Brigham Young and previously unbeaten Wake Forest. "We don't dwell on bad things, we just pick each other up," said Goodwin.

Chris Mullin, sophomore guard, averages a team-high 17 points per game. Goodwin and senior forward David Russell (16-point average) have allied with Mullin to cause trouble in triplicate for opponents.

"Those three guys," says Carnesecca, "are our carriers."

The primary doubt encircling St. John's, however, concerns the center position, where starter Jeff Allen, a 6-foot-10 junior, and Bill Wennington, a 7-foot sophomore, together average nine points, 10 rebounds per game.

Some St. John's observers see this center combination as the Redmen's point of vulnerability. The players disagree. "Everybody says we need a center," says Russell, the flashy forward. "I think they are the reason we've been winning."

"Before the North Carolina game this year, Looie told us, 'Let's wake up some eyes,' " says Goodwin. "Afterwards, that win said to us, 'We can be as good as we want to be.'

"We've matured. We've grown up," Goodwin says. "We look at some of our old game films and we can't believe the mistakes we used to make."

Last season, Georgetown defeated St. John's by 30 points, 17 points, and 15 points. "Really, though," Carnesecca says, "Georgetown did that kind of thing to a lot of people last year."

That first game, Redmen players say, established a near fear of the Hoyas hurricane. "In that first game at the Garden, they just embarrassed us," says Russell.

"I try not to remember that first game," says Goodwin, who remembers anyway. "The first 10 minutes, they dominated us. Pat (Ewing) was awesome. It was just bad."

But the calendar has changed now. And so have the Redmen. "I hope we've learned from playing Georgetown last year," says Carnesecca, who has learned a lot with a 306-110 record coaching.

Georgetown's Fred Brown says, "We are like the Dallas Cowboys. Every team we play really gets up to play us."

That includes the Redmen, whose emotions now hover Empire State Building-high. "The big test," David Russell calls the game.

"We should not be the underdog," says Billy Goodwin.