FOR THE second consecutive season, Villanova's basketball team will enter the Big East portion of its schedule with just a single blemish.

Last night, the eighth-ranked Wildcats won their 33rd consecutive game at the Pavilion, 97-63, over Delaware (3-8). They now have off until Jan. 2, when they'll be at Marquette (8-3), the same place where they began conference play last season on New Year's Day. They lost that one, and two of the next four, before getting into a groove that took them all the way to the Final Four.

This was the 'Cats' fifth on-campus game. They have only four more. Their other five home dates are at the Wachovia Center, where they won their first two NCAA Tournament games last March.

This one was actually a five-pointer with 15 minutes to go. But not much good happened after that for the visitors, who made only five field goals in the closing 13 minutes.

"You're not picked to finish No. 1 in the Big East for no reason," Delaware coach Monte Ross, the former Saint Joseph's assistant, said of the Wildcats. "It looked like they were playing with eight guys all the time. They have more answers than most people have questions."

After 8 1/2 minutes, the Wildcats (11-1) led by a deuce, even though they were shooting 5-for-7 from the arc. That's because the Blue Hens were shooting 9-for-11 from anywhere. The Hens already had used eight players, each of whom had already scored a basket.

'Nova went on a 14-zip run late in the half, and took a 16-point lead into the break. When Delaware made the first bucket after intermission, both teams were shooting 50 percent. The 'Cats simply had more attempts.

And now, finally, it's time to look ahead to the meat of the season.

"Coach [Jay Wright] talks to us all the time about [the Big East]," said senior guard Scottie Reynolds, who led everybody with 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting, 6-for-8 from three-point range. "He goes right down the line, all the teams. They're all up there with us. It'll be interesting to see how we stack up against those guys."

The last time 'Nova was picked to win the conference, in 2005-06, it did. That team eventually made it to the Elite Eight.

"I know it's definitely a completely different team than last year," Wright said. "We have a lot of depth. That's been an advantage for us in the preseason. Now we'll see if it's effective in the Big East. It might be good for us to stay fresh."

The 'Cats, who played without forward Maurice Sutton (upper respiratory infection), also got 19 points and 12 rebounds in 23 minutes from Taylor King. Reggie Redding, in his second game back after serving a one-semester suspension for violating the university's student code of conduct during the summer, had 16 points and a half-dozen boards in his senior home debut. Corey Fisher contributed 14 points, five boards and four assists.

"It felt great, just to have the opportunity to play again," said Redding, who received the loudest ovation when the starting lineups were introduced. "I want to give something back to the Villanova community, for giving me another chance.

"It was good that I was allowed to practice. Practice sometimes is as tough as games. Every day, I did a little extra work. I think I'm in pretty good shape, but I still have work to do."

As does the team.

"This was another good step for us," Wright noted. "We're getting better. And we're getting better defensively. We have our lapses. I just know that when some of the young guys get in there, they've got to get a little better.

"I like the way we responded [in the game]. Now we have to get ready for the Big East."

The Hens got 13 points and six assists from Jawan Carter, a transfer from St. Joe's. Kelvin McNeil was the only teammate to score in double figures, with 10. But four guys had from six to nine.

The Wildcats had 20 more rebounds, which you'd expect.

This was the teams' first meeting since a 2000 NIT opener. The 'Cats have won all eight in the series. Wright had been 8-10 against the Hens, all while he was at Hofstra.

Next up, Marquette, the team Villanova beat in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. By a point, on a layup that just beat the horn.

"Everybody's going to come after us," Wright said. "I want our guys to be prepared for that. The Big East is the Big East, man. One day at a time, it's a grind. I mean that in a fun way. You have a battle, and there's another one waiting for you."

Reynolds has been through those wars for 3 years. He knows.

"You know every team you play is bringing it to another level," he said. "Every game. So we have to play harder and more together than the other team, for 40 minutes. It's something we have to do. If we do that, we have a chance to have a great game, and a great season." *