One of Jay Wright’s biggest concerns before the start of Villanova’s 2021-22 college basketball season was rebounding, an apprehension sparked by the way Rutgers and North Carolina dominated the boards in a pair of closed scrimmages.

“We’re going to have to be tougher to rebound,” the Wildcats coach said one week before his team’s season opener. “We have to rebound as a team. We’re not going to do it with just size.”

Nine games into the season, the sixth-ranked Cats have shown steady improvement on the boards, as evidenced by their 57-36 command underneath in a 67-53 victory over Syracuse on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Going back 16 years, it’s the most rebounds grabbed by the Wildcats. Their 27 offensive rebounds are the most in that category over the same period.

Villanova outrebounded its opponent for the seventh time in its nine games, all victories. The Cats have lost the two games where they have been outrebounded, to nationally ranked UCLA and Purdue, this week’s No. 1 team.

“It’s an area that we have been struggling, to be honest,” Wright said following the game after the clock struck midnight. “We’ve been getting better the last couple of games. We knew this was going to be a test to see if we could continue that path of improvement. That was big because in the first half we couldn’t make a shot and offensive rebounding kept us in the game.”

The Wildcats capitalized on their offensive rebounding in the second half. Trailing 29-26 at halftime despite shooting 24.3% overall and 5 of 28 (17.9%) from beyond the arc, they scored 17 second-chance points off 14 offensive rebounds in the final 20 minutes.

Guard Justin Moore scored nine of his team-high 18 points off second-chance opportunities in the half. Moore and Collin Gillespie each drilled one three-point basket after being found on the arc after an offensive rebound.

“I thought in the first half it kept us in the game; we couldn’t make a shot,” Wright said. “We were struggling with their zone. Then in the second half, it would have stayed close as it was in the whole first half, but we got some extra possessions and we got some threes off offensive rebounds.”

The Wildcats also made history Tuesday night on three-point shooting, firing up the most attempts (50) in program history. According to ESPN Stats and Info, they are the fifth major conference team in the last 25 years to put up 50 shots from deep, but their 37 misses are their most under Wright. Moore and Gillespie each sank 4 of 12 three-point attempts to lead the way.

Since being outrebounded 38-26 by Purdue, Villanova is plus-64 on the boards in its last four games against La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph’s, and Syracuse. The Cats don’t have a dominant rebounder but are putting together a team effort led by Jermaine Samuels (6.1 per game), Eric Dixon (6.0), and Moore (5.4). Dixon has a team-high 25 offensive rebounds (2.8).

Another positive sign has been the emergence of 6-foot-9 redshirt senior Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who has played in four games in his return from an extended absence following surgery on both of his tibias. Cosby-Roundtree pulled down six rebounds in less than six minutes of the first half against Syracuse, and has 12 rebounds (six offensive) in 24 minutes of playing time.

» READ MORE: No. 6 Villanova 67, Syracuse 53: The Wildcats knock down 13 threes and defeat their old Big East rival

The Wildcats will need another strong team effort against No. 2 Baylor, their opponent in the Big East-Big 12 Battle on Sunday in Waco, Texas. The Bears, who defeated Villanova last March in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, currently sport a plus-11.6 rebound margin and average 15.5 offensive boards per game.

“I think we’re getting a lot better,” Wright said. “Our rebounding is getting better. In our two losses we weren’t bad defensively, but our rebounding was poor. That’s something we’re improving on. I still think we can get our bench going a little bit more. I think we can get Dhamir going and I think we have a lot of room for growth.”