When Villanova honors its seniors today at the Pavilion, it also will honor the opposing coach.

It may sound strange, but the Wildcats' senior starters - Mike Nardi, Will Sheridan and Curtis Sumpter - might not be part of the senior celebration if not for Rutgers coach Fred Hill Jr.

Hill was an instrumental recruiter on Jay Wright's staff when those seniors decided to attend Villanova. Today, he returns in his first season as the head coach at Rutgers after serving as an assistant there last season.

"We've had a good relationship ever since I was young - 12 or 13 - listening to him in camps," Nardi said. "He's a competitor and a guy who's always positive. I just thought he was very truthful and loyal."

Rutgers (10-17, 3-11 Big East) and Villanova (18-9, 6-7) are in different situations.

The Scarlet Knights, who are ahead of only Cincinnati in the 16-team conference, are mathematically eliminated from the Big East tournament. Their season will end next Saturday against Notre Dame.

For Villanova, every game counts as it tries to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are 10th in the conference standings.

Life in the Big East is in constant flux, though.

The Wildcats were not far off from the position of the Scarlet Knights when Wright took over with Hill on his staff. They were young and rebuilding.

"We were at a similar point in the program and had to reestablish the great tradition Villanova had enjoyed," Hill said. "You lay the foundation not by wins and losses but by growth in the program and leadership from the seniors."

The Scarlet Knights are aware of the turnaround at Villanova and of their own football team, which went from doormat to bowl-game winner.

"It's a great blueprint to look at," Hill said. "Our kids want the same type of success."

If anyone is confident about that coming true, it is Wright.

"He knows what he's doing, and he's going to build it, and they're going to be contenders in the Big East," Wright said.

Villanova is trying to be a contender as well.

The Wildcats have three regular-season games remaining, finishing on the road against Connecticut and hosting Syracuse at the Wachovia Center.

So while today will be a celebration, the Wildcats still have business on their minds.

"I'm more focused on the overall big picture," Sheridan said. "If we play together for 40 minutes, I'll be fine."

Hill has taken a line from Wright, saying that the Scarlet Knights will be focused on improving with every game instead of trying to ruin Villanova's postseason chances.

Some of the Rutgers players looked devastated after losing to Connecticut last week and ending their chances of playing in the Big East tourney.

"We're going down there to win," Hill said. "We continue to work on a daily basis."

While his mind is on his work, Hill said that tonight would be special for him as well. Not because he will be presented with a signed basketball - which Villanova gives to all former assistants who come back as head coaches - but because he will see the growth of the players he helped recruit.

"I'm just very proud of what they've accomplished," he said.

Contact staff writer Shannon Ryan at 215-854-5503 or sryan@phillynews.com.