ONE TEAM, WHICH starts three seniors who have been through a bunch of Big East wars, is already playing with an eye toward March. Once again.

The other, which starts three freshmen, is simply learning as it grows, realistically pointing toward a more distant future.

Yet it's still Villanova and Saint Joseph's, which remains the most passionate basketball scrum in the city, regardless of whatever disparity might exist on paper. Or the fact that ESPN doesn't feel it's worthy enough to be part of Rivalry Week any more. But really, does Philly even have a close second?

So it's usually one of those deals where you never know for sure, sometimes even when you maybe think you might.

Last night at the Pavilion, though, did not turn into one of those occasions, even though the nationally ranked Wildcats (6-1), coming off a 10-point loss 7 days earlier to Top 25 Tennessee in New York, were without frontcourt reserves Maurice Sutton (sprained ankle) and Isaiah Armwood (back spasms), which left them with seven available scholarship players. And one of them was freshman James Bell, who was making only his second appearance since returning from stress-fracture issues in both legs. He wouldn't play much. It didn't matter. And he did at least make his first collegiate basket.

Two years ago, the Hawks (3-4), who lost at Drexel on Wednesday and will go to Princeton tomorrow, came here and nearly beat a team that would end up in the Final Four.

But the Wildcats have now won 42 in a row on campus, going back almost 4 years. This one ended 71-60. It was their third straight win in this series, and 22nd out of their last 24 against the rest of the Big 5. They'll be at Penn on Wednesday, and then at La Salle on Dec. 12.

"What are you going to say?" said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "Nothing surprises you, when you look at a game like this. That's the great thing about having seniors. That was probably the difference right there. One thing with being young is just the bodies."

Added Corey Fisher: "Being here 4 years, we know what it takes."

The Hawks, who have some talent that just has to develop, hung tough early. But Villanova would take a 10-point lead into the break, by scoring nine of the last 12.

Did we mention that it took 9 minutes for the first foul to be called, or that St. Joe's didn't get whistled for one until 2 1/2 minutes later? We can only assume both were series firsts.

Anyway, it took the Wildcats 5 1/2 minutes of the second half to extend the margin to 21, following a 13-0 spurt.

After that, the closest the Hawks would get is nine, with 40 seconds to go (after an 11-2 run).

"It was too far to climb, against a really good team," said St Joe's coach Phil Martelli. "I was really proud of our game preparation, after getting it handed to us [at Drexel]. It wasn't because we were playing Villanova. We were disappointed, in the way we played. We knew this was a tall task. One thing for us, if we play a team at this level, you have to play to perfection.

"I think it was a well-played game. And some of these aren't, because everyone gets over excited. We can't allow this to linger into Sunday, where we face a difficult, cerebral test."

Neither team shot particularly well, either from inside the arc or beyond it. But they hadn't been hitting all that much coming in.

"I was happy with how we started the second half," Wright said. "That's important for us. We've been a little lackadaisical. I wish we'd finished it. We didn't. We've got to get better at that."

Corey Stokes led the Wildcats, with 15 points. He also had eight rebounds. Antonio Pena, Fisher and Dominic Cheek (off the bench) all finished with 14. That was three off Cheek's career-high. Pena had 14 rebounds, two off his career best, while Yarou added a dozen.

"We definitely missed [Sutton and Armwood], with their energy," Pena said. "We know [St. Joe's] is going to give us their best effort. And we're going to do the same."

The Hawks, who'd been beaten soundly off the boards at Drexel, had 14 fewer boards. Their top scorer, Carl Jones, had 19, three more than his average.

"They had men, but we have to get there," Martelli said. "We can't just say, 'They're older. They're stronger.' You've got to bring your ticker. And it has to be a group effort."

The Hawks only shot seven foul shots, making two. Villanova was 14-for-19. But the Wildcats went 7-for-23 from three.

Is that a concern, going forward?

"Not yet," Wright said. "But it's getting there. I think we're a good shooting team that's just missing shots right now. We'll see."