Jay Wright thinks his Villanova Wildcats are more prepared for the start of the Big East season than they were a year ago, when a team without a senior scratched out a 9-9 conference record and barely made the NCAA tournament.

But he won't know how prepared until tomorrow, when the 15th-ranked Wildcats take their first dip into the conference's shark-infested waters at Marquette, starting a marathon run of 18 consecutive Big East games against daunting opposition.

The Wildcats closed their nonconference schedule at 12-1 after a 62-45 win over Temple on Monday that clinched the Big Five title.

Their only loss was to eighth-ranked Texas at Madison Square Garden. Other than that, St. Joseph's was the only team to push them for 40 minutes, something that will happen with a lot more frequency beginning tomorrow.

"There's a kind of satisfaction getting through 12-1 and now a real excitement to see, Where are we?" Wright said yesterday. "We judge our program by how we do in the Big East. Last year, the Sweet 16 was great, but we were 9-9 in the Big East, and I really think that's what kind of team we were.

"Last year, we had a lot of freshmen that played. We had juniors learning to be go-to guys. Now I think we've developed from that point, but we've got to prove it. That's the anticipation and the excitement."

The Big East consistently has placed seven teams in the weekly Associated Press top 25, more than any other conference. This week, however, if you were to extend the rankings by two, it would have nine teams, adding West Virginia and Marquette to the mix on top of the "also receiving votes" category.

"People are saying it's the hardest conference in the history of basketball," junior guard Scottie Reynolds said. "But when it comes down to it, when you match up against the opponent, all you're trying to do is win. You just have to stick to the little things and not look ahead."

The Big East placed eight teams in the NCAA tournament last season and could have nine, or even 10, at the dance this year. Certainly, wins over the top-tier teams will improve a squad's number in the Ratings Percentage Index and strength-of-schedule ranking. Conversely, losses to the five or six lesser teams will hurt.

"You always have a chance to knock off a top-25 team," Wright said, "but sometimes I feel the games that are the most pressure are those you know you're supposed to win. You know you can get beat by anybody in the Big East. So night in and night out, it's almost like playing high-stakes poker - every hand is big, every game is big."

Connecticut and Pittsburgh have spent every week in the top six, and have been ranked 2-3 in each of the last five weeks. Notre Dame has been in the top 10 every week except two. Georgetown's win Monday night over UConn probably will vault the Hoyas into the top 10.

And Villanova? The Wildcats are the sixth-highest-ranked Big East team in the top 25. They were picked fifth in the conference's preseason coaches' poll.

"I don't care where we are, but where does that put us in the Big East?" Wright said. "We had one game kind of on the road against Texas and we didn't play well. We've got to prove ourselves. I know we've got a lot to prove."

Senior forward Dante Cunningham has been the Wildcats' best player, averaging team highs of 16.9 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 56.3 percent from the field. Reynolds is averaging 14.2 points and 4.4 assists but has made just 37.4 percent of his shots.

"I'm not worried about Scottie at all," Wright said. "He hit a big three [against Temple] when we were down eight and in big trouble. I was so proud he just kept battling and playing hard and scrambling defensively. I want our other guys to learn that."