Let's say the college player of the year had to shoot something other than a basketball to sustain his life. Let's say Walter Berry had a rifle in his hand, and a grizzly was bolting toward him. Given the truth about The Truth, what might happen?

Well, Berry just might prop the rifle butt against his knee instead of his shoulder. Possibly, he might even pull the trigger with his pinkie. The bullet surely would bounce off at at least two trees and a meteor; it also would arrive, eventually, exactly on target, and the grizzly would lie slain at Berry's feet.

Same with basketball.

Berry has awful technique, perhaps the least artful jump shot in memory. Men for whom proper body position and ball rotation are sacred shield their children's eyes when the St. John's junior rises from the floor and fires.

Of Berry, you don't say how.

You say wow.

Dr. Naismith did not invent the game Berry plays so well.

Elgin Baylor did.

Even at its highest level, basketball is less complex than, say, a toaster or line 59 of the federal income-tax form. The best players are the ones who deposit the ball in the basket at one end of the court and keep it out at the other.

Going into the final regular-season surge, Berry is scoring more points than most of the lustrous little guys about the country and is grabbing more rebounds and blocking more shots than most of the gifted giants.

This is not a year when the best college player is immediately obvious. A very good case could be made for Maryland's Len Bias, whose form is as textbook pure as Berry's is flawed.

Duke's Johnny Dawkins might well be superior to anyone. Or Danny Manning of Kansas. Or Kenny Walker of Kentucky. Or Brad Daugherty, although Kenny Smith seems most valuable to top-rated North Carolina.

Take your pick. I'll pick Berry.

In about the same number of games, Berry's 23-plus points is as good or better an average than Dawkins, Indiana's Steve Alford, Virginia Tech's Dell Curry and several other guards have mustered. Very likely, the best all-around guard in the country is Michigan State's Scott Skiles.

Berry is 6 feet 8, an inside player, although not a center. Yet at the end of last week he had nearly 70 more rebounds than Daugherty, whom Carolina lists at something like 6-11 and 91/100ths.

In addition to outscoring and outrebounding Walker, Berry had a few more assists and more than twice as many blocked shots. He also has better numbers than centers William Bedford of Memphis State and Roy Tarpley of Michigan.

Two players who have matched Berry stat for stat are Ron Harper of Miami of Ohio and David Robinson of Navy. They may be his equal, or even better, but neither has performed against competition as fierce as Berry's.

Berry had 35 points against Duke and 13 rebounds against Louisville. He averaged 24 points and nine rebounds in two games against Georgetown.

St. John's has been Berry Berry good this season, which surprised those who assumed a fall with the departure of Chris Mullin and Bill Wennington. (Mullin was the seventh pick in the NBA draft, Wennington the 16th.)

The excellent college coaches allow their teams to sag sometimes but almost never to slump. Coaches with a rich past, such as Lou Carnesecca, usually have a prominent present and also a bright future.

After a 31-4 record and Final Four appearance last season, the Redmen are 23-3. If they did not play terribly well against the Hoyas Monday at Capital Centre, neither were they as terrible as Carnesecca suggested after the 60-58 victory.

"Not very pretty," he said.

Looie, nobody looks pretty against Georgetown.

Berry almost never looks pretty on the court. All he does is whatever seems necessary. Growing up as a playground hero in New York, Berry may never have developed a classic jump shot, because that would have been close to useless anyway.

Form is fine unless a few hands happen to be waving overhead and a larger body is hanging on your hip a few feet from a netless hoop. To survive on the playgrounds, you improvise in the air. Your math is basketball geometry, angles off the glass.

Berry is one of the few players in America whom opposing coaches might gladly allow an open 12-footer from the left baseline. Let him stand there and clang all night, with a shot that makes him look like a southpaw shot-putter.

Or perhaps not.

Berry's worst number is free-throw percentage. It is right around 70, or average, about what a middle-aged sportswriter might produce with some practice.

A wise coach might figure it prudent to hack Berry mercilessly before he gets a chance to bury an off-balance bank shot. Use up your 15 to 20 front-court fouls and gamble on Berry fouling up at the foul line.

Twice in the final six tense minutes against Georgetown, Berry had one-and-one free throws. Just to make it fun, Hoyas students behind the basket waved everything but the tuba at him.

Calm as could be, Berry swished all four shots. As everybody, friend and foe, says, he gets it done. St. John's practically petitioned the Supreme Court to get him into school before last season, after he averaged nearly 29 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots for San Jacinto Junior College.

Carnesecca preferred that Berry ice his tender ankle and button his lip after the Georgetown game. Still, Berry responded to some questions on the way to the bus, wrapping all that needed to be said into an exchange with David Wingate.

Georgetown and St. John's went at each other four times last year; they might do it again before this season's final dribble. So winning a Monday game in early February is important but not imperative.

As Berry was surrounded in the large exit space, Wingate walked by and saluted.

"Awwwwright, Wingate," Berry said.

He paused.