LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A weekend ago, after Villanova ended Connecticut's 10-game winning streak, there was at least some semblance of renewed hope that the NCAA wasn't yet out of reach.

Two double-digit losses to other nationally-ranked teams later, the Wildcats are pretty much back to where they were. The reality is what it is, for a young team that's trying to get the program to the only tournament that matters for the fourth straight March, something that hasn't happened on the Main Line in more than 2 decades.

Louisville, which hasn't lost since January, would be a monster assignment for anyone right now. For Villanova, it was simply asking too much. The Cardinals did what they do, on Senior Day, with former coach Denny Crum in Freedom Hall to celebrate a birthday. And the result, not shockingly, was a 68-54 victory in the departing players' final home game.

Villanova will play for the last time in the regular season at the Pavilion on Wednesday, against South Florida. Since the Wildcats are senior-less, there will be no pre-game ceremonies.

The situations, obviously, are quite different.

"We just got beat by a better team," coach Jay Wright said. He got no arguments.

The Wildcats (17-11, 7-9 Big East), who close things out Saturday at Providence, haven't won four in a row since December. Yet that's what they have to do to even get a look from the Selection Committee. That would, of course, entail winning a quarterfinal in the conference tourney, against some big-name opponent. Which they might not be up to anyway. And even that may not be enough to break the bubble. Still, that's certainly the minimum requirement, if 'Nova doesn't want to settle for an NIT that could have a distinct Philly flavor this year.

"We can't worry about that," said freshman Malcolm Grant. "You just put more pressure on yourself."

Fair enough.

The Wildcats actually got off to a decent start, despite the fact that the starting backcourt of Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher started on the bench because the roommates showed up a few minutes late for the team bus to the morning shootaround. Grant, who's had trouble getting any minutes at all, made his first two shots. And 'Nova led by four after 8 minutes.

In the next 7 minutes, 41 seconds, the 'Cats went 1-for-7 from the floor. And the No. 13 Cards (24-6, 13-3) went on a 17-3 run. At the half, it was 35-24. The 'Cats had no offensive rebounds; the Cardinals had an 11-0 advantage in points off turnovers and went 12-0 on second-chance points.

The lead would grow to as much as 18, with 6:23 to go.

Reynolds entered after 5 minutes, and played 26. But he went 1-for-6, 0-for-4 from the arc, and had four turnovers. Fisher got in only briefly near the end of both halves.

"They overslept," Wright explained. "It's no big deal, but they've got to make sure [they don't].

"Malcolm got [going early]. It's tough to play all three. Rather than run all of them in and out . . .

"[Louisville] keeps people in front of them [on defense]. They press, but they get back. They don't get beat. Scottie couldn't get by them."

Grant finished with a team-high 11 points, and didn't turn the ball over in 23 minutes. Dante Cunningham was the only teammate to hit 10.

Casiem Drummond (stress fracture in his right ankle), Villanova's lone center, was in uniform for the first time in three games. But he never took off his warmups.

"I came late to a function, I have to take responsibility for that," Reynolds said. "As a leader, I have to be there. But it's over.

"[Against] Marquette, we just didn't finish it out. This game, my hat's off to them."

Louisville, as is often the case, had five guys score between eight and 13.

"It's their experience and tenacity," Cunningham said. "They were very aggressive. We should have [more] answers. It's very hard [here]. The crowd, it's like they're right on the court sometimes.

"We never sit down and talk about [the postseason]. We have to play the game that's in front of us. If we do that, it'll take care of itself."

Perhaps so. But the margin for error, which was never that much anyway, has officially been eliminated.

"I just wanted to give my team some energy, the best way I know how," Grant said. "We got off to a pretty good start. [Then] we just lost it. The game's about runs. They made one.

"We're going to go back to practice, and try to keep getting better. We're not going to put our heads down. We have to get back to work."

It's become a necessary theme. But at this point, neither time nor hope is on their side. *