Mention point guard and Big East in the same sentence and the first thought for most people is "Pearl Washington." But two of the best playmakers in the conference and the nation will meet -- without nicknames -- at Capital Centre tonight at 8 when 10th-ranked St. John's plays 11th-ranked Georgetown.
"You want to define point guard?" said Seton Hall Coach P.J. Carlesimo. "Put down M. Jackson. The first name doesn't matter."
For Georgetown, the first name is Michael. In the last six games, he has shot 63 percent, an exceptional figure considering he rarely gets within 15 feet of the rim. His assist average is up to 6.3 per game, and he is one of the primary reasons the Hoyas (19-3, 9-2 in the Big East) have won eight straight.
For St. John's, the first name is Mark. He is leading the nation in assists with 8.8 per game, has had 10 assists or more eight times this season, averages 37 minutes per game and has become nearly as indispensable as Walter (The Truth) Berry to the Redmen (22-3, 9-2).
Speaking of Berry, The Truth hurts. At least he did yesterday as the result of a sprained ankle suffered just before halftime in Saturday night's victory over Boston College, to which he did not return.
Indications are that Berry, who leads the Big East in scoring (23.9) and rebounding (11.5), will play, but how effectively is another question. He has been perhaps the best frontcourt player in the nation so far and cannot be replaced by anyone on the Redmen's roster. "He's been absolutely killing people inside," Michael Jackson said.
With Berry, St. John's is certainly a threat to win its fourth straight over Georgetown in Capital Centre.
If Berry is less than 100 percent, that much more pressure will be placed on Mark Jackson, who is smart enough and talented enough to get Berry the ball often, and in the spots that lead to high-percentage shots. Don't even look for a backup point guard on the Redmen's roster.
"Mark is just playing out of his mind -- the number of minutes he's playing and how critical he is to that team," Carlesimo said. "The pressure is on him, every game from beginning to end, and he's handled it just tremendously."
People who think St. John's is a one-man team are surprised to learn how significant Jackson's play has been, especially in league games, in which he has averaged 9.5 assists.
"He's calm, and he's getting the ball to the right people. He's running the offense well and he's breaking pressure," Georgetown Coach John Thompson said.
"His temperament fits exactly what St. John's wants to do," Michael Jackson said. "Their system is not to run all the time, but to run only on opportunity."
Michael Jackson has been instrumental whether the Hoyas are fast-breaking or settling down into a half-court offense. A midseason adjustment in the Georgetown offense doesn't seem to have distracted him.
"I was taking a lot of shots early," he said. "But the Syracuse game, and maybe two or three games after that, I was looking to get the ball inside a lot more so that defensive people would see us as an inside and outside threat, not just outside.
"So now that they're thinking of us inside," Jackson said with a mischievous smile, "I've gone back to shooting."
One of the reasons Carlesimo, among others, expects a great game tonight is because of the Jackson matchup.
"They run the game," Carlesimo said. "They have a great feel for tempo, and both do what John (Georgetown Coach Thompson) and Louie (St. John's Coach Carnesecca) want. Michael's a little bit better outside shooter, but Mark has certainly kept people honest this year. Both can score, both are underrated defenders. I know I'm using superlatives here, but you're talking about two of the best point guards in the country."
With Berry, you may be talking about the best player in the nation. Because of the ankle injury, he was held to a career-low seven points and five rebounds Saturday.
Berry was asked yesterday about his status for the Georgetown game. "Right now, I've got to think about my future," he said after the team's practice, in which he did not participate. "One game doesn't mean too much, to go out there and make it worse. . . . Georgetown is a pretty big game. I'd rather be going into a Seton Hall-type game with this injury."
Despite the talk, the team physician, Irving Glick, said he thinks Berry will "be ready when the gong sounds."
And if not, Georgetown isn't expecting St. John's to forfeit.
Even before the injury to Berry, Thompson said: "If I could put three people on Berry, he wouldn't hurt us. But the other people they have are very good."
The Redmen demonstrated that against Boston College when forward Willie Glass made 11 of 14 shots for a career-high 24 points, and guard Ron Rowan had 16.
Georgetown's Ralph Dalton, the man who will be facing Berry much of the night if he plays, said: "Everybody talks about Walter Berry all the time. But they can have a balanced attack. St. John's is a good team. They've proven that already."