THE HOLY WAR. Does anyone really have to say much more?

Tonight at the Pavilion, Saint Joseph's plays Villanova for the 66th time. But for the first time in eight seasons, they're playing before the New Year. Last season, for the first time in a while, the game wasn't shown on ESPN as part of Rivalry Week. This season, it wasn't even scheduled for early February, although it will be on ESPN2.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that none of the last four games has been decided by fewer than 13 points. Or even six of the last seven. The last tight one was 2004, at Villanova, when the unbeaten Hawks won by seven, against a sophomore-led Wildcats team that was just starting to find itself.

Ten months ago, of course, the Hawks rolled by 22 at the Palestra. It was Villanova's fifth consecutive double-digit loss. But both teams wound up in the NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 1997.

"I don't have a theory [for the point differentials]," said St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli. "I think if we're honest about it, one team [has been] better than the other, whether it's older or more balanced or on a different [run] than the other. Because you're at home, maybe. That's why it gets away.

"I think this game is the same thing. I think it's dictated in the first 6 minutes. If we can get in, stand there and hit back. Because, in a lot of ways, the team that has fallen behind hasn't hit back. And that fervor that you have for like 36 hours leading up to it is gone."

The 15th-ranked Wildcats lost for the first time in nine tries Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, 67-58 to No. 6 Texas (7-1). The Longhorns beat St. Joe's (4-4) in last month's Maui Invitational by 18.

There are probably some folks from both camps who would gladly sacrifice a few successes elsewhere to get this one. But does this matchup still have the same meaning it once did?

"Back in the day, there wasn't as much national exposure about both teams," said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "It was a real bitter local rivalry. I don't think it's as nasty anymore. When I was an assistant here [1987-92], the days leading up to the game were nasty.

"I remember they painted coach [Rollie Massimino's] driveway, painted the library. I'm sure we did things I just don't know about. Now, I think the St. Joe people understand how important the Atlantic 10 is. They're a national program. Obviously, our people feel the same way about the Big East. Now, it's one of the best Big East teams playing one of the best from the A-10. You still have that local connection. But that's what it's become. It's just different.

"You know the year-round implications. But people have more fun with it. We all live amongst each other. But I think the days of just winning this game are gone. The goal is to get to the NCAAs. The rivalry has kept the same intensity, because both schools have respect for the tradition. I think it's gotten healthier."

"I think there are a couple of levels to it," added Martelli. "It's an honor, and a challenge. And I mean that in a good way . . . But I think the over-the-top, the hatred, if that's the right word, and I hate using that in college athletics, but that hatred that still exists in taverns, in gas stations, in families, I don't think it lasts as long. Maybe it's because the results have been so uneven.

"Having said that, though, this should never be just another game."

Villanova leads the series, which for whatever reason had only one meeting from 1931-54, 41-24. But the last game represented the largest margin of victory for St. Joe. And the last game is always the one that lingers.

"They basically killed us," said Villanova junior guard Reggie Redding. "As a player, of course you want to get back at them. But whatever happens, it's not the end of the world. I'm sure they want to beat us as badly as we want to beat them. But there's a lot of other big games after this, for both teams."

That's the reality. But it's tomorrow's story. This is about tonight. And urgency. Especially for a senior.

"It was tough, swallowing that pill," said Wildcats forward Dante Cunningham. "I'm sure, as a leader, some built-up feelings might come out right before we go out there. They took it to us and everything. There's nothing you can really do or say about it until the next year.

"The Big 5 went back long before the Big East. There's a history behind the whole thing. I understand that it's been here, and it's going to be here for a long time. It's something you definitely want to put your name on, say I was a part of that."

As long as that doesn't include another loss to the school that's right down Lancaster Avenue.

"Any time you get embarrassed like that, it doesn't matter who you're playing," said Villanova junior guard Scottie Reynolds. "But, we're from the same area. Of course you're going to meet up. It's not like you're going to have a brawl or anything. A few weeks ago I was at the barbershop and a few of [the Hawks] came in. I just told them good luck in Maui."

The ball gets tossed up at 8. It isn't everything. But it's hardly just another game, either. *