The subplots of the Villanova-St. Joseph's rivalry are well-known, with the games more intense, the taunting between fans more hostile, the postgame bragging louder and more cutting.

But the biggest subplot for tonight's so-called Holy War at the Pavilion is pure basketball, and that is the best big-man matchup you'll see in a Big Five game all season.

Villanova's Dante Cunningham and St. Joe's Ahmad Nivins, both seniors, have led their teams in the early going and are pivotal figures tonight when the 15th-ranked Wildcats (8-1 overall, 1-0 Big Five) seek to avenge a loss last February to the Hawks (4-4, 0-0) that broke their 14-game winning streak in City Series play.

The 6-foot-8 Cunningham, coming off a 23-point, 12-rebound effort in Tuesday night's 67-58 loss to No. 6 Texas, tops the Wildcats with 17.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting 57.9 percent from the field, aided by newfound confidence in his mid-range jump shot.

Nivins, who is 6-9, scored 25 in an 85-64 win Tuesday night at Towson. He averages 19.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots with a 68.8 percent field-goal mark built by the ability to maneuver around the rim and score with either hand.

"Ahmad is such a presence in the paint, blocking shots, dunking the ball, rebounding," Villanova coach Jay Wright said yesterday, "whereas Dante, it seems to me, is not that type of presence but he's more of a player that can impact the game in a lot of ways. I think they're different players but both of them are equally valuable to their team."

Nivins was challenged in the preseason by St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli to be the best player on the floor every game, and the numbers suggest he has done that. His rebounds are way up, and his scoring average has improved significantly from the 12.5 of his first three seasons.

"Every year, playing against him, he's gotten tougher and stronger every year," Cunningham said. "He's expanded his game to facing up [to the basket]. He's got a great post game with his back to the basket. It's going to be battle."

The rise of Cunningham, a quiet role player for the Wildcats his first three seasons, has been absolutely meteoric. Cunningham entered this season with a 7.1-point average, scoring at a season-best clip of 10.4 last year.

"Here's a guy who has really embraced the college experience," Martelli said. "He's improved and improved. You can see him playing with an air of confidence. There's never any nonsense with him. He just plays basketball.

"He and Ahmad have capitalized on what it is to become seniors, where you really do improve. It wasn't like either one came in and become an immediate star."

The Wildcats have done a good job of holding down Nivins the last two seasons; he totaled only 13 points in those two contests. Last season, however, Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson scored 20 points apiece at the Palestra as the Hawks won, 77-55, Villanova's first Big Five loss since Dec. 4, 2004.

Without Calathes and Ferguson this time, Nivins will have to be effective in the paint at both ends, but his success offensively may hinge on how well the Hawks hit from the perimeter. St. Joe's has shot just 28.8 percent from three-point range in its first eight games, and Martelli said it's a matter of conducting the offense more efficiently.

"I know it sounds crazy, but we have to reduce the game to catching and passing - pass the ball, catch it cleanly, getting the ball to the next spot on the floor," Martelli said.

Cunningham, meanwhile, will try to sustain his level of play to help the Wildcats rebound from Tuesday, and avenge last year's loss.

"Just being in Philly, going around, you see a lot of St. Joe's players, you see a lot of their fans and they're like, 'Oh, yeah, we beat you,' and this and that," Cunningham said. "It's all good. It's fun to have that rivalry, so close, right there."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.