Looking at Villanova three games into Big East play

It could have been a great win. The kind that keeps on giving, right up until Selection Sunday. Not that Villanova deserved to win Saturday's game against Louisville at the Wachovia Center. The Wildcats got outplayed for most of the first 35 minutes or so. Still, at the end, it was their game to lose. And, unfortunately, they did. Because of too many missed free throws down the stretch, from a team that usually converts at a big-time percentage, and two missed shots from within a few feet of the basket just before the final horn. It happens.

As coach Jay Wright was quick to point out afterward, when his team went 14-2 in the Big East in 2005-06, it won more than a few that could have gone either way. So maybe, he reasoned, it all evens out at some point. And he's probably right. Doesn't make it sting any less, even though it's relatively early. The bad news is, the Cats have lost both games against teams that maybe they weren't supposed to beat. But they could have won each. They were only down a point at Marquette on New Year's Day, with six minutes left. So they're not far from being a really good 3-0. Instead, their lone win was at Seton Hall, in overtime. Again, it's way early. The good news is, they will get many more chances in the next two months to come up with a signature win or two. But you don't want to miss out on too many of those opportunities when they're right there for the taking.

Last year, they squeezed into the NCAA tournament with a 20-12 record, 9-9 in the conference. That included a win over Syracuse in the 8-9 game in the Big East tourney, which was pretty much an elimination game. And even then, they probably needed some help that final weekend, and got it. Who knows what this season holds. The Big East may even get nine teams in this time. At least. You just have to wait and see how this stuff all sorts itself out across the country. But this much is clear: the Cats might have little margin for error. Even if, as West Virginia coach Bobby Huggins declared on Big East media day, that the ninth-best team in that conference could probably finish second in many other conferences.

The Cats can't afford to lose any games that they really shouldn't lose, which is often easier said than done. They host St. John's this Sunday, which seems like one of those must-haves. The Johnnies did beat Notre Dame, but that was in New York. The Cats are also at South Florida on the 24th, which can be a tougher trip than it seems. Ditto at Providence on Feb. 4. The Cats have had problems winning up there, although they got it done last year. They also get Providence at home, as well as Cincinnati and Rutgers. And they go to DePaul. If they can win all of those, that gets them to eight Big East wins. At worst, it should be seven. If it's only six, that's not good.

The Cats also get Pitt, Syracuse and Georgetown in South Philly. And Marquette at the Pavilion. Can they win two of those? More? Less? If nothing else, it should be interesting. There are also road trips to Syracuse, Connecticut, West Virginia and Notre Dame, none of which figure to be easy. If you look at it objectively, the Cats should still be able to get to nine or maybe even 10 wins, which in this league is pretty good. That might not be enough to get them into the sub-regional here, but first steps first. They could always add another win or two in the Big East tourney. In other words, as much as the Louisville game hurts in the long-term picture, there are still a lot of chances to make up for that. It's just a matter of doing it.

Right now, it's hard to figure out what Wright's going to get out of his team from game to game. But the Cats do seem to have a lot of grit, which can carry you so far. Dante Cunningham has obviously elevated his game considerably. But opponents aren't stupid. They realize that Scottie Reynolds makes a lot of things go, and are going to do everything they can to try and neutralize him. That's what Louisville did. Make somebody else from the perimter beat you. Antonio Pena has been hot and cold. The Cats really need him to complement Cunningham inside. He played well against Louisville, but just didn't make his free throws when it counted. Sophomore guards Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes have also been up and down. There needs to be more consistency, across the board, because you can't always depend on Scottie to drop 30 or 40 on somebody, even though's certainly capable. It's apparent that Dwayne Anderson is still not quite 100 percent, coming off that stress reaction in his foot. But he tries, and he plays defense. Ditto Reggie Redding, although he's often an offensive liability. Same with Shane Clark. And those are upperclassmen. They don't have to be stars, but they need to contribute more than they have been. Maybe not even a lot more. But just enough to make a difference. The team has to be better than the sum of its parts.

I think the Cats will probably win one or two that maybe they shouldn't, and have one or two go the other way. And in the end, they'll probably be about what we expected them to be. A really good team, not a great one, that will get into the 65-team field and perhaps win a game or two, depending on the matchups. It remains a work in progress. Just hope that come March, the Louisville loss doesn't wind up costing them too much. That would be a shame, because it would have been a keeper. You have to hold serve at home at least a little. Anything you get on the road is a bonus, especially in this league. Stay tuned. The ride is just getting revved up. And there's obviously a long ways left to go. It doesn't figure to be boring.