THE PRELIMINARIES are done. The Big East is right around the bend. And you are not quite sure you want to see what is lurking there.

These 12 nonconference games did not go as the most optimistic had hoped, but, given the lack of experience on this Villanova team, not all that far from what realists might have imagined.

With his star point guard on the bench next to him at the start, 'Nova coach Jay Wright looked like he might have to petition the NCAA for extra timeouts early in the opening minutes against American at the Ski Lodge last night. Even as his team led, Wright kept calling timeouts. Then, he called for Maalik Wayns, who did not start due to a virus.

And the Wildcats took off, opening a comfortable lead and never really being threatened in a 73-52 win.

'Nova (7-5) was 10-for-25 (40 percent) from the arc after having shot just 30.7 percent from three coming in. The 'Cats had just five turnovers. The two point guards, Wayns and freshman Ty Johnson, combined to get 20 points, 14 assists and just two turnovers. The defense held the Eagles (8-5) to just 34.5 percent shooting. AU star Charles Hinkle, who lit up Saint Joseph's for 32 points and was averaging 21.8, had to earn every one of his 17.

'Nova's bench, with Wayns, outscored American's, 34-7. The 'Cats had 13 fastbreak points to none for AU. It was a very nice performance, but it will be just a touch different when they go to West Virginia and Marquette next week.

"I don't think these guys understand yet what's coming," Wright said. "A lot of them have never played in the Big East . . . I know they don't know . . . We're going to have to live through that together, but that's not the worst thing in the world. A little humility is not bad for anybody."

Last night, Villanova, which had lost five of seven, was not great, but more than good enough.

"That was a good step for us," Wright said. "We are getting better. We are not pretty and we are definitely a work in progress."

Any progress will be welcomed now.

"Now, it's on so we'll see what we can do with the big boys now," Wright said.

Perhaps the coach will bring Wayns off the bench at WVU.

"No."

Wayns missed practice with migraines. Practice, Wright said, was terrible.

"We need him in there," Wright said. "He's the engine. He makes us run. I just thought he did a great job of scoring, getting people shots, defending. He's got a really difficult role. If we're going to be a good team, he's going to have to be great at his role."

Wayns said he was tired and drained. You really couldn't tell on the court. He was the fastest player in the gym by yards.

The Wildcats got 12 points from freshman JayVaughn Pinkston who, along with Taj Bell, guarded Hinkle.

"I was really thinking at the beginning [of the season] so now I'm just going out there playing for my teammates and coaches," Pinkston said.

This Villanova team has no seniors. Wright blamed himself for that and the fact that some of the juniors are not farther along.

"We have been inconsistent," the coach said. "I thought we played some decent games, I thought we played decently at Temple, decently against Missouri. Did not play well against St. Louis. Did not play well against Santa Clara. Did not play well against St. Joe."

They will need to find some consistency to survive the Big East, which has No. 1 Syracuse, No. 4 Louisville, No. 8 Connecticut and No. 10 Marquette, as well as much-improved Seton Hall and surging Georgetown. Those seven are a combined 76-5. Wright is not at all surprised by his team's record. He has been around a while. He understands his fan base. He also knew 50 former Villanova players were in the house, including Chris Ford and Malik Allen. So were Jack Kraft, Rollie Massimino and honorary 'Nova coach Larry Brown.

"I have been through this before here," the coach said. "I like that [the fans] have high expectations. That's what makes it a great job."

He told his team before the game about the alumni and coaches who would be there.

"I told them this is really important to all these people and that's what makes the job great, but when you're not living up to their standards, you've got to take the heat and we're not right now," Wright said.

There is a flip side. Wright has lived it.

"When you're having success here, there's no place better, either, to play," he said.

Speaking of 50, the coach turns 50 on Christmas Eve.

"That's the toughest challenge," Wright said. "That's the one I'm not sure I'm ready to handle."