When the Big East preseason coaches poll showed Villanova picked to finish fifth in the conference, some eyebrows were raised. Two of them belonged to Wildcats coach Jay Wright.

"We looked at it and we said, 'Whoa,' " Wright recalled last night. "This is a really good league."

Wright and others wondered then whether the Wildcats had what it would take to lock horns with the powers in arguably the toughest league in America.

After 18 grueling games of conference play, they showed that they did.

The 11th-ranked Cats seized the opportunity to win byes through the first two rounds of the Big East tournament, wrapping up the fourth seed with a sharp effort at both ends of the floor last night in a 97-80 win over Providence at the Pavilion.

Villanova (25-6, 13-5 Big East) gets six days off before beginning tournament play Thursday at New York's Madison Square Garden. The Cats would need to win just three games to grab the conference championship and the automatic NCAA bid.

A review of the regular season shows that the Wildcats never lost back-to-back games. They swept Providence and Syracuse. They finished 5-0 in the Big East at the Pavilion, where they have won 28 consecutive games. Their two home losses in the league were one-possession defeats at the Wachovia Center by Louisville and Georgetown.

Last night's victory enabled the team to tie a school record for regular-season wins with the 1937-38, 1949-50 and 1950-51 squads.

Wright gave the credit to his team's four seniors - Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark, Dante Cunningham and Frank Tchuisi - all of whom played for the final time at the Pavilion last night.

"Everybody was asking what it was going to be like in this monster conference," Wright said. "Nobody knew. We talked about not letting one game affect us. So many things can happen playing as many great teams as we did in the league.

"But that's all the seniors. I'm just so impressed with them. It's hard for me, and I'm 47, to keep that concentration level. For these guys to do that for 18 games in this league, and be 13-5 the way it is this year, it's a tremendous accomplishment."

The way the Wildcats prepared for each game was reflected in their 19-0 record against teams ranked below No. 50 in the RPI, meaning they didn't overlook any opponent.

Anderson, who scored 19 points despite playing only 17 foul-plagued minutes, chose to credit Wright's motivational skills, which he compared to those of the new president of the United States.

"If you ever listen to Barack Obama, he's just a motivator," Anderson said. "When he says something, you really believe it. I'm not saying Coach Wright is Barack Obama, but it's the way he expresses his feelings in our meetings.

"We had a meeting last night. He's giving us a speech, and by the end of the meeting you just want to play right then and there."

Wright couldn't help but laugh.

"My wife would be happy," he said. "She likes [the president] better than me."

Junior Scottie Reynolds, who knocked down five three-pointers and led the Wildcats with 23 points, said he didn't know what to think last fall after his team was picked to finish fifth.

"We knew it was going to be a challenge," he said. "I'm proud of this team because one of the things we wanted to do was stay consistent, and I thought we did that."

Of course, having Reynolds and Cunningham (19 points) back helped the Wildcats sustain this consistency. Cunningham sparked a 13-0 run late in the game that sealed the deal over the Friars (18-12, 10-8).

Reggie Redding dished out 11 assists, the most by a Villanova player this season. The Wildcats scored 36 points off 22 Providence turnovers and recorded 19 steals.