IN 2009-10, VILLANOVA'S basketball team didn't lose its second game until Feb. 6.

Last season, it was Jan. 17.

This time? Hope you had 3 days after Thanksgiving in the office pool.

With no seniors and five first-year guys, the Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the Big East. Still, squandering a nine-point lead in the last 3 minutes against Santa Clara following a double-digit loss to Saint Louis in a tournament in Southern California isn't the kind of November most 'Nova Nationites probably had in mind.

Now, coming off Saturday's eight-point home win over Penn, the 5-2 Wildcats get 10th-ranked Missouri (7-0) tonight in New York in the first half of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. The last time they were there, of course, they blew a 16-point halftime lead against 15th-seeded South Florida in the opening round of the Big East Tournament, part of an unfathomable 0-6 run to end things.

"I don't think we're at a place as a team where Missouri is," coach Jay Wright understated. "They're really good. Five of their top seven are seniors. But I don't think it's fair to say we're young. There are teams that are younger than us. We're inexperienced. We've got guys who are juniors, like Dominic Cheek, that we'd like to be further along. But we like where he is, and where he can get to. Even Mouph [Mouphtaou Yarou]. He's a junior, but he's really played 1 year. Taj Bell's a sophomore. But he didn't play much [due to injuries]. [Freshman] JayVaughn Pinkston didn't play last year [due to a university suspension]. If there's blame, it's more on our staff for where our juniors are at this point.

"I'm excited about the future, but we've got to make sure they don't get down no matter what happens. I know what people's expectations are. We just don't think it's fair to put it on these guys right now. We're trying to teach these guys all of the things that Missouri is doing. No matter how many have done it before, our young guys just don't do it yet. We're getting there. This game is more to prove to ourselves that we belong to being mentioned with a team like that. I think our history allows us to be, but right now we have not earned that. Each team has to. This group has a lot of work to do to earn it . . .

"We know where we are. Even in Europe [in August], we got beat up. But we learned. We know fans might not be fine with it, but we have to be. We don't want to be in this position, but we are. I tell them not to compare themselves to other [Villanova] teams. We're not worthy of that yet. But we're not disappointed in them. I think they feel the pressure that they should be [doing more]. They know. That's natural. I want to make sure they don't put that pressure on themselves, because we see the progress every day."

Missouri defeated Notre Dame, which was picked ninth in the Big East, by 29 points a little over 2 weeks ago in the CBE Classic in Kansas City. The next night the Tigers beat then-No. 20 California by 39, which is believed to be their highest margin of victory over a ranked opponent. They haven't been 8-0 in six seasons. The only previous meeting produced a 19-point Tiger win in the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii in late December 1985.

Villanova is at Temple Saturday. A week later, it goes to Saint Joseph's. So we'll know more soon.

"I think we're in a good spot," said junior lead guard Maalik Wayns, who is averaging a team-best 18.7 points. "I think we're getting better. It's about how you finish, not how you start. The last 2 years we started hot but didn't finish so hot. Who's to say we can't start this way and finish strong?

"When you're in the Top 10, everyone's with you. When you're not, they're not. We're just trying to play for each other. I've seen [Missouri] play once. They're good. But if we come out and do what we can do, we can beat them. We'll have some people up there. I'm not sure how many Missouri people are going to come that far. It'll be good for us."

Scottie Reynolds, who is headed to the Utah Jazz camp, was at the Davis Center working with the second team.

"I told him I could use him," Wright joked. "But we might need two or three of him [for this one]."

Good thing it's still early.