One day last June, St. John's center Bill Wennington came close to losing it all. While playing for the Canadian national team in a pre-Olympic tune-up in New York City, Wennington, who's 7 feet, 245 pounds, took the ball at the end of a two-on-one fast break and went up for a dunk—higher than usual, it turned out. His feet flew out in front of him, he landed on his head and right shoulder and went into a convulsion on the floor. "A scary experience," says Wennington, who was hospitalized for two days. But he recovered to play in the Olympics and returned to St. John's campus in Queens, N.Y. in one piece. That happy ending is just the beginning of a happy story for the Redmen, who have four starters back and have added a prodigal son to form what looks to be Lou Carnesecca's best team ever.
The star of the show is guard Chris Mullin (page 42), a U.S. Olympian who went to Los Angeles as one of the best shooters in the country (57% from the field, 90% from the line for St. John's last season) and comes back as one of the better defenders as well. "A Paganini," said Carnesecca after Mullin made six steals against Spain in the Olympics. "A virtuoso."
But this year Mullin won't be a lone star, now that the Redmen finally have Walter Berry. A 6'8" power forward, Berry spent last year at San Jacinto Junior College in Pasadena, Texas, to which he was exiled because his New York State high school equivalency diploma did not satisfy NCAA academic standards. At San Jacinto, Berry was a man among boys, averaging 28.9 points and 14 rebounds. "He's the truth," said Redmen freshman Shelton Jones after guarding him in a summer league game. Berry's lefthanded turnaround jumper is close to unstoppable. He does 180-and 360-degree spin dunks in practice and has an eerie eye for the basket. He'll be getting the eerie eye, however, in the classroom. To ensure his continued eligibility, he's getting two hours of tutoring—one St. John's official calls it "preventive medicine"—every day.
Understandably, the Redmen won't be employing the deliberate, inhibited offense they used in the past. Carnesecca has told his guards to run when they can, and practices have emphasized four-on-oh and three-on-oh fast breaks. "We'd be hurting this team to walk it up," says sophomore guard Mark Jackson.
Jackson and junior running mate Mike Moses, who between them scored just 12.6 points a game last year, will have to take advantage of the extra attention opponents will be paying to Mullin and Berry. "We're going to force the issue this year and get some buckets," says Moses. St. John's was 18-12 last season, losing five games in overtime and three more by two or fewer points. Wennington will have to improve on his 5.7 rebound average, and St. John's will need defensive help from its newly reinforced bench. "Last year Looie would look, and it would be the water boy," says sports-information director Katha Quinn. "It's different now."
One addition is Ron Rowan, a 6'5" junior forward transfer from Notre Dame. "When he comes in, the pot will be boiling," says Carnesecca. Another is Jones, a high school All-America forward from Amityville, N.Y. who's known alternately as the Amityville Horror and Ice. Jones reports he averaged 23 points in a New York City summer league. And backing up Wennington is 6'11", 210-pound freshman Rob Cornegy. Over three consecutive practice days in October, Cornegy wreaked havoc. He gave Wennington a purple toe, tore a gash in reserve forward Ron Stewart's forehead that required four stitches, and broke Stewart's nose in a rebound tussle. ("Stewart's bugle is all over his face," reported Carnesecca.) Another improvement on the bench should be Willie (Hollywood) Glass, a defensive stopper at forward who shot only 39.8% in Big East games last season, in part because he was releasing the ball off his palm instead of his fingertips. After practicing with a bottle cap taped to his palm, he scored 50 points or more in three of 10 games in an Atlantic City summer league.
Much of the talk around St. John's pertains to the pairing of Mullin and Berry. But also, the fans are wondering if, with all the excitement, Carnesecca will be able to keep himself within the new coach's box. Don't bet on it.