As St. John's entered this basketball season, the skeptics were dogging Walter Berry again. Okay, he was good. But without Chris Mullin and without Bill Wennington, could he carry a team? Could Berry be the man, as he was in high school and junior college? Could he dominate games against the good teams and help the Redmen stay near the top of the Big East?
Berry, rarely lacking in confidence, answered the skeptics by saying, "You ain't seen nothing yet."
Now, 16 games into the season, everybody's seeing. It's not that Berry, the St. John's junior center/forward nicknamed "The Truth," was a lie last season; he did average 17 points and nine rebounds and helped get the Redmen to the Final Four.
But this season, "The Truth" has been unavoidable. After his 23-point, 12-rebound performance led St. John's over UCLA earlier this season, UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard said he would have needed Big Foot to guard Berry.
Georgetown will bring one of the nation's best defenses, but not Big Foot, to Madison Square Garden Saturday afternoon at 2 for what St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca today called "a friendly encounter." The 13th-ranked Hoyas (11-2, 2-1 in the Big East) probably need to at least contain Berry to beat the 10th-ranked Redmen (14-2, 2-1).
The skeptics are quiet right now. Berry is averaging 24.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. And Berry's numbers are even more impressive against the better teams.
Berry had 20 points and 13 rebounds against Navy, which at the time was ranked No. 19; 35 points and 11 rebounds against third-ranked Duke; 35 and 12 in an overtime victory over Providence; 26 and 10 against Pitt.
Boston College "stopped" Berry Wednesday night when he got 18 points and 14 rebounds.
"He's made this team, in a sense," Carnesecca said this afternoon before practice. "Last year, there was Chrissy and Wennington. Not this year. He can get better. But we're talking about the full development of a player."
Every team Berry has played on has been his team. He was junior college player of the year two years ago for averaging 29 points and 14 rebounds per game and leading San Jacinto to the National Junior College Championship. Before that, Berry was the primary reason Ben Franklin won the New York City public high school championship.
It's often been said that Berry, 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds, is "a man among boys." Last year, the criticism was that Berry couldn't be a player among players, that he didn't fit into the team concept. Berry admits now, "It was a big adjustment" from junior college to Big East. "I was always dominating games at that level."
Carnesecca said, "Last year, it was completely foreign to him. Now, he's more familiar."
Berry attributes much of his improvement to St. John's playing in Spain and Italy last summer. "I dominated a couple of games over there and those guys were grown men," Berry said. "That's when I figured if I could do it there, I could do it in the Big East."
At times this season, Berry has been amazing. St. John's was losing to Providence by two points with three seconds left when Berry chased down the ball -- after it had slipped through his hands -- and got himself fouled with one second left. Berry hit both free throws, then went on to score three points, make two steals and block two shots in overtime to secure the victory.
Maybe the critics surround Berry because some of the shots he takes (and makes) don't look fundamentally sound.
"He's a very unorthodox player," Carnesecca said. "When he's got the ball, it's, 'Boom, boom.' His body is going seven or eight different ways. He's not the classic player, but the results are classic."
Carnesecca deserves a large amount of the credit for Berry's success, even though he won't take it. "What we did," Carnesecca said, "was work on, 'What happens when they come after you: give it up and get yourself in a better position.' "
If there's any team to provide the ultimate test for Berry, it is Georgetown, which has led the nation the last two years in defense. No doubt, the Hoyas will try several players on Berry in man-to-man and various zone defenses.
If Georgetown -- primarily the perimeter players -- could contain Chris Mullin, as the Hoyas did last year in three out of four meetings, it stands to reason Berry will have to work for every point.
Carnesecca, well aware of that, wants four or five of his players in double figures. "Hey, it's a five-man game," Carnesecca said.
The St. John's coach wants those five to play better defense than in the first three Big East games this season, all of which went into overtime.
Berry said the overtime games are becoming a bit much, but he'd take an extra five minutes if needed to beat Georgetown.
Berry added that he didn't need to prove anything to himself coming into this season, "but it did tick me off that just because Chris and Bill left, people thought we wouldn't be any good.
"I've worked hard for this, and it's been well worth the wait. Nobody's going to take it away from me."
In other games involving local teams, Navy, which lost to George Mason twice last season, gets another chance at the Patriots at 2 in Halsey Field House. Howard, the team many favor to unseat North Carolina A&T for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title, plays the Aggies at Burr Gymansium at 8.
Clemson, which could be the surprise team of the ACC, plays host to Virginia in South Carolina at 2. American visits James Madison at 7:30, and St. Joseph's visits George Washington in the Smith Center at 1.