THEY HAVE lived and thrived among the beasts in the Big East, beaten their share of them over the last 4 years. Villanova basketball is alive and well these days, having created its niche even among college basketball's elite.

"Paving our way in the cement," as Dante Cunningham put it yesterday before the Wildcats began to prepare for their Sweet 16 matchup against Duke Thursday night.

A big win over UCLA over the weekend. A big game against Duke 2 days from now. If Villanova somehow makes it to the Final Four, the names in its wake will look like an inventory list for your local sports-apparel store. They will probably have to go through at least part of the Big East again, beat Pitt, go through Syracuse maybe, and maybe Louisville or UConn at the end, too.

All big names, names that mean something when their respective coaches walk into the home of any high school stud in America. "Franchises," was the word Scottie Reynolds used before practice yesterday, and the funny thing is he was trying to downplay the whole thing at the time.

There are no bigger franchises in college sports than UCLA and Duke. UCLA: John Wooden, Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, 11 NCAA titles. Duke: Mike Krzyzewski, Christian Laettner, Johnny Dawkins, Grant Hill, three national titles, five consecutive Final Four appearances in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"It's definitely a name that stuck when you were younger," Cunningham was saying. "You always heard about these teams as you grew up."

Villanova? Not so much. There has been success, for sure - their miracle run to a national championship in 1985 and plenty of fine seasons over their history. But they have had their down stretches, too, stretches that have, over the years, restricted their reach.

Jay Wright has reached his fourth Sweet 16 in 5 years with a simple formula. Farm the northeast corridor. Farm it hard.

"We have our little niche," he said.

The niche?

"Jersey guards," he said. "New York guards."

The success of players like Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry has begotten players like Corey Fisher and even Philly recruit Maalik Wayns. Lately, the success of Reynolds and Cunningham has pushed open doors into the D.C. area as well.

"We can't pick 'em like Duke can," Wright said. "But we have our niche."

Amid 'Nova's renaissance, though, Mike Krzyzewski has come to town, or near it, and taken what he wanted. Because his kids were Gerald Henderson's schoolmates and he "knew him since he was a kid," Wright thought he might have dibs on the Blue Devils standout. But Coach K came calling, and that was that. "He broke my heart," Wright said again yesterday. "But he's in a great place."

So is Duke's 7-1 junior center Brian Zoubek. Wright is still amazed that he couldn't even get the Haddonfield standout to come for a visit, but that wasn't only a Duke thing. All indications were that Zoubek was headed to Stanford before Krzyzewski made his play.

"Coach K can go to Missouri, to Texas, wherever he wants," Wright said. "We don't get that outside D.C. or New York."

The success of the last 4 years has produced some elbow room, Wright said. 'Nova has one of the nation's top recruiting classes, and one recruit is "a kid from from Africa who has watched Villanova and knows Villanova."

"We wouldn't be able to get a kid like that without the 4 years we've just had," Wright said.

Which leads to this question: Does that improve dramatically if Villanova wins Thursday night? Is beating Duke on top of UCLA an exacta that dramatically extends the school's reach, no matter what happens next?

"Believe it or not, we get calls from guys from all over," Wright said. "But our recruiting is kind of different. Most of the guys we get, they come to all the games."

It's how he got Wayns, who came, watched, and committed to 'Nova early. "He picked us," Wright said. "That's what it comes down to for us."

He doesn't get them all. But he's getting more of his first picks than ever before. They're not from Texas, or Missouri, or Idaho, and he knows Coach K can still probably pick his pocket any time he wants to, regardless of Thursday's outcome. But he's getting his share of guys who might have once found their way to a name brand - a "franchise" as Reynolds so aptly put it.

Then again, Villanova may be closer to being its own brand. Maybe a win Thursday does carry more to it than Elite Eight status.

"You see little kids running around now all the time with Villanova shirts," Cunningham said. "We're starting to become a household name more and more." *

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