JAY WRIGHT has been preaching the same message for nine games now, insisting as the wins mounted atop one another that his Villanova team still had a lot of work to do.

Mostly the coach's words fell on deaf ears, another babbling cliché by a poor-mouthing coach.

Maybe now people will listen.

Villanova beat Hartford last night, 103-75 a final score on the surface that doesn't point out any glaring red flags. Scratch barely into the box score, though, and you'll start to see that Wright isn't merely being polite. The Wildcats are a rough work in progress on the defensive end right now, a crew that scraps its way to force turnovers but whose tendency to abandon guys for double teams leaves them victim of wide-open shots.

A game after Temple - Temple, a team that for John Chaney's tenure treated offense like a four-letter word - shot 51 percent for the game, the Hawks, a team that won only 13 games last season in the America East Conference, went for 41 percent from the floor and a torching 40 percent from beyond the arc in the first half.

It is all well and good right now. A team blessed with a bench full of talent and offensive players who turn circus tricks into easy buckets, the 'Cats are making up for their defensive shortcomings with a blistering offense. Five Wildcats finished in double figures last night: Scottie Reynolds with 21, Corey Fisher with 18, Shane Clark with 16, Dante Cunningham with 13 and Malcolm Grant with 12. And they shot a blazing 56.3 percent from the floor, 45.5 from the arc.

To boot, with the 103 points, Villanova topped the 100-point mark in back-to-back games for the first time since the 1969-70 season.

"We can score," Wright said, laughing. "That's about the only positive thing I can say right now."

Here's the smack of reality: The Wildcats have two more games before January, two more games before America East teams give way to Big East teams and going bucket-for-bucket becomes a track meet no one wants.

Wright admitted his Wildcats struggled to guard Hartford off the dribble, an honest observation but a startling admission. Big East teams are supposed to be able to guard America East teams off the bounce with ease and if they can't, what happens when Marquette's Dominic James is the dribbler? Or Louisville's Edgar Sosa?

"We started poorly in the Big East last year, trying to get Scottie and Reggie [Redding] going," Wright said. "They'll catch on. I'm not worried but I do know we have a lot of work to do."

Wright isn't one to overreact, a luxury afforded even more with an 8-1 record and a No. 22 ranking. He doesn't see a group that is dogging it or not trying. The 'Cats did, after all, convert 19 Hartford turnovers into 30 points.

Wright sees, instead, a group of kids who are trying, a roster top-heavy with freshmen and sophomores who are just a breath removed from high school. For those not familiar with today's high-school game, defense isn't often stressed.

"I played no defense in high school," said Reynolds, who nonetheless earned McDonald's All-American honors. "I thought steals and going the other way for a basket was defense."

There aren't a lot of teachers on this Villanova team, either. Reynolds said he might have been the worst defender on the team last season but he had Will Sheridan, Curtis Sumpter and Mike Nardi to lean on.

Which is why guys like Dwayne Anderson, a junior who better understands what the defense needs to be, can make such an impact. The little-used guard who once toyed with transferring came into the game in the second half because everyone else was in foul trouble.

Wright kept him in the game because he needed him. More than just a breath of fresh air, he injected a fury into the defense. His stats - eight points, two assists, two steals, three rebounds in 11 minutes - don't explain the value that Anderson provided. On virtually every defensive possession he was pointing, directing his wayward flock of underclassmen, and when he wasn't pointing he was talking.

It is no coincidence that when Anderson came in Villanova clung to a 63-59 lead and when he left to raucous applause the 'Cats had stretched the distance to 90-73.

"I just try to come in have a positive effect," Anderson said. "I want to change the game anyway I can." *