NEW YORK -- Seton Hall is playing this season with a frontcourt of Anthony Avent of Newark, Gordon Winchester of the Bronx and Arturas Karnishovas of Vilnius, Lithuania. The presence of the Vilnius entry, wearing jersey No. 55, means that glasnost has worked its way into the Big East Conference. The moral is that sometimes the choicest of recruits arrives merely by the plainest of luck.

The upshot is that P.J. Carlesimo has himself an excited 6-foot-8 freshman who loves television, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan; is fascinated by these things called malls; is learning about floppy disks and dutifully working on his vocabulary flash cards; and happens to be a terrific basketball player.

Karnishovas is "the total package," said Carlesimo. He shoots three-point shots. He drives. He rebounds, runs the floor, jumps well, has a fine feel for the flow of the game."

He's 19, has vast international experience and plays like it.

Karnishovas is averaging 11.7 points and 7.7 rebounds though the Pirates' first three games, and has improved his statistics in each outing. Last Saturday he had 23 points and 13 rebounds, helping Seton Hall rout New Hampshire College, 106-69.

"Unfortunately, he's terrific," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun says. "He's the best junior player {the Soviets} had. I don't have any question who the best young player in the league is."

"Arturas is the real thing," says Avent, a member of the Pirates' Final Four team in 1988-89.

"He's going to be a very, very good player before he's done," Carlesimo says. "It's strictly going to be him getting comfortable with the way we play."

He is the only child of Mykolas and Irena Karnishovas, economists in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital city. His manner is humble, his English fast-improving, his mind quick.

"He just drinks things up," Carlesimo says.

Karnishovas is the only Lithuanian playing collegiately in the United States, and he owes it in part to Sarunas Marciulionis of the Golden State Warriors, the only Lithuanian playing professionally in the States.

Marciulionis was in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, for the European championships. Carlesimo was there too, scouting for the U.S. Olympic Committee. This was two months after Seton Hall's overtime loss to Michigan in the 1989 NCAA title game in Seattle. While Rumeal Robinson was fracturing hearts all over South Orange, Karnishovas was home in Vilnius. He had been an avid NBA-watcher for years (about 30 games are televised annually there), but this was the first college game he had seen. He loved the way Seton Hall played.

"I thought it was a great school," he says. He still thinks that, even though it was a bit of a jolt to find that the Pirates starting five -- John Morton, Ramon Ramos, Daryll Walker, Gerald Greene and Australian Andrew Gaze -- all had moved on by the time he arrived.

Karnishovas ran the idea of playing American college basketball by Marciulionis, who spotted Carlesimo in Zagreb. Carlesimo listened to the pitch.

The coach checked with several international colleagues. The reports were glowing. Carlesimo and his staff got in touch with Karnishovas, by letter and phone. Academics were no problem. There was a minimum of sweet talking, since Karnishovas could barely speak English then, and Carlesimo's Lithuanian, he says, is "not real strong." A scholarship offer came soon after, despite Carlesimo having neither met Karnishovas nor seen him play.

Last fall Karnishovas's club team, Statyba, toured the United States in a series of exhibitions. Team officials were not thrilled about Karnishovas wanting to leave.

The coach "got mad at me," Karnishovas says. "In practice, all the time he would stand by me {and yell}: 'Run! Run! Repeat that drill! Run!' I had a real hard time." He smiled.

Karnishovas did not defect, since he had a student visa. His decision meant leaving family and friends, of course, but basketball had become an all-consuming passion. He had started playing when he was 8. "I couldn't stay two days without practicing," he says. "I was like a machine -- practice, practice. I thought I would lose something if I don't do something today. I will be worse than somebody else.

"I knew I wanted to go. It wasn't maybe, maybe not. This was American basketball. I had to go ahead to the next stop. If you've got the chance, you've got to take it." The dream is mapped out: four years at Seton Hall, a degree, postgraduate work in the NBA.

At a reception welcoming Statyba at the outset of the tour, Karnishovas met Vida Lanys-Anton, a reading specialist who lives in Oakhurst, N.J., and is an active member in the area's tightly knit Lithuanian community. When she learned Karnishovas needed a place to stay, she opened her home.

"Of course I said yes," she says. "I didn't want to take the chance of having him go home because I didn't know if they would let him back out."

The political unrest in Lithuania is the one blot on Karnishovas's storybook trip west.

Lithuania is a flat and fertile farming land on the Baltic Sea, at the western edge of the Soviet Union. Its three million people have long considered theirs a sovereign state. In March, caught up in the tide of liberation that swept through Eastern Europe, Lithuanians declared their independence, seceding from the Soviet Union.

Some two months later, Soviet tanks and troops rolled in and a blockade was established, causing shortages of fuel and medicine. The blockade was lifted in the late summer, but tensions remain high as negotiations with the Soviets have led nowhere.

In his new world, Karnishovas viewed all the upheaval on the evening news. "I was really worried -- about my family and my friends," he says.

Says Lanys-Anton, "At times it was very difficult for him to be sitting here, with everything he could possibly want, knowing what's happening to his family and friends."

Karnishovas had expected to stay with Lanys-Anton for a few weeks, before enrolling at Seton Hall in January. The problem was that he failed to score the requisite 700 on his SAT, which isn't surprising since his English was extremely limited at the time.

A few weeks turned into eight months. A bond formed. Karnishovas became like a third son to Lanys-Anton, whose two children are grown.

His immediate basketball future and his visa hinged on passing the SAT. Karnishovas dedicated himself to learning. He studied. He listened and read lips on television. He had long tutorials with Lanys-Anton. He took the test again and got the results in April. "The scores arrived in the mail on his birthday," Lanys-Anton says. "I pulled up in the car and he's standing there waiting for me, holding a balloon someone bought him in one hand, and his SAT score in the other."

"It was a real big moment in my life," he says.

Karnishovas was schooled to believe many vile things about capitalism, mainly that it is a system full of rapacious, money-grubbing warmongers. He has since changed his mind. His adjustment has gone smoothly.

"Everybody loves him -- everybody thinks he's great," says 7-foot sophomore center Jim Dickinson, Karnishovas's roommate. "He's been accepted very fast and made a lot of friends."

Karnishovas loves cartoons and shoot-'em-up action movies, and has grown accustomed to what he considers the undeclared national pastime -- "to go to shopping," as he calls it.

"It is a real big deal in America: Now we go to shopping," Karnishovas says with a smile.

"He asks me all the time, 'Can we go to the mall?' " Dickinson says.

Dickerson recalls the look on Karnishovas's face when a professor said something about formatting a diskette: "He had no idea what the guy was talking about, so we went to the computer room one Saturday, and a couple of people explained to him all about computers."

Says Karnishovas: "Everything is different, so different. The cars, the buildings, the people."

"He's still walking on cloud nine," Lanys-Anton says. "He was absolutely thrilled when he showed me his dorm room -- with an air conditioner, with this and that. He's very proud."

Such exuberance flows naturally, when you find yourself living out a long-held dream. Arturas Karnishovas is playing basketball in America. The early returns are that it is everything he cracked it up to be.

"I'm happy," he says. "I live today. I don't think about tomorrow."