Familiar setting as Villanova opens Big East play

Near the conclusion of the movie "Speed," mad-bomber Howard Payne asks police officer Jack Traven: "Doesn't it seem like we're right back where we started?"

Well, Villanova has been here before.

Last season, the Wildcats were 10-1 and ranked in the Top 25 heading into their Big East opener at DePaul. The only team they'd beaten that would get into the NCAA Tournament was Temple, and the Owls weren't in until they won the Atlantic 10 final.

The Wildcats lost at DePaul, edged Pitt at home, then lost at Cincinnati. They would soon drop four more conference games in a row, including at Rutgers, and five of six. That forced them to play uphill the whole way. But they won five of their last seven, to get to 9-9 in the conference, then beat Syracuse in the 8-9 game of the Big East tourney.

And that was just enough to get them into the 65-team field, where Villanova then made it to the second weekend for the third time in 4 years, before losing to eventual national champion Kansas in the Sweet 16.

Now the Wildcats are 12-1 and ranked 15th, heading into their Big East opener tomorrow afternoon at Marquettte (11-2). Once again their best pre-New Year's win was against Temple, which is 5-6 yet still figures to be a major factor in the A-10 title hunt.

Other than that, though, the similarities pretty much end.

"I think this team is better prepared [for what it's about to face]," said coach Jay Wright, following Monday night's 62-45 victory over the Owls at the Pavilion. "We were such a young team last year. We got a lot of fool's gold early. But the Big East is better. We'll see. It's real early. A road game against a team like [Marquette] will tell you where you are."

The Wildcats were picked to finish fifth in the Big East. There are seven conference teams in the Top 18, and two more are 26th and 27th (Marquette).

The league got eight teams in the NCAAs last season. The Wildcats would obviously prefer to play the first weekend at the Wachovia Center, as they did in 2006 en route to the Final Eight. To do so, they need to be no worse than a 4/5 seed.

Let the positioning commence.

"This year, we're a lot more mature," said senior forward Dante Cunningham. "We have that experience from last year.

"But we have to be ready to grind it out, day in and out. When you look at the league, it definitely excites you. But it shows you what kind of challenge you're up against.

"We go into every game like it's one at a time. It's the next game, regardless of who we're playing. You can't say, 'Hey, we did that, or whatever.' ''

The Wildcats play four times in South Philly, where they've been a .500 team mostly because of the level of competition. Those games are against Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse and Georgetown. They'll play Marquette again at the Pavilion, where the Wildcats have won 23 straight, and will play Providence twice. Villanova, which split with everyone it played twice last season (Pittsburgh, Syracuse, DePaul), lost to Marquette late last February at the Wachovia Center by 10. These Golden Eagles lost at home to Tennessee, by 12; Temple beat the Volunteers by 16 on North Broad Street.

For whatever that's all worth.

By all means, feel free to project away. Just try to keep it as downhill as possible. *