It's no secret that Villanova's play in nonconference games has been disappointing, so any kind of decent performance with the start of the Big East season on the horizon would have been a welcome sight for Wildcats coach Jay Wright.
Wright saw that kind of performance Thursday night. The Wildcats held American scoreless for a period of more than 61/2 minutes in the second half to take command, and committed only five turnovers on offense for the game, in a 73-52 victory over the Eagles at the Pavilion.
The Wildcats finished their pre-conference slate at 7-5, going 3-5 after a 4-0 start. They now play only conference teams for their final 18 regular-season games beginning Wednesday night at West Virginia.
If there's one thing that Wright knows about his team - with five freshmen in its rotation - going into the Big East meat grinder, it's that the Wildcats are inconsistent.
"That's the key word," Wright said. "We played decently at Temple, decently against Missouri. We did not play well against St. Louis, did not play well against Santa Clara, did not play well against St. Joe's. So it's what we've been - inconsistent. That's part of our growing pains.
"We're just going to have to live through this. We're going to have to get better as fast as we can. We've done it the other way when we've played great in the preseason. But sometimes you have teams that are a good set for Big East games, and I'm hoping that's what we are with a little more size. But we've got a lot of work to do."
Another thing Wright knows about his team is that he must have Maalik Wayns on the floor.
Wayns missed practice Wednesday with a virus, and he did not start against American. But the junior leader entered the game four minutes in and finished with 12 points, 9 assists, and 1 turnover in 27 minutes.
"We need him in there," Wright said. "He's our engine, and 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, and if we're going to be a good team, he's going to have to be great at his role. Not just good . . . great."
Wayns, who said he felt tired but otherwise OK, thinks the Wildcats are ready for Big East play.
"Guys are getting confident," he said. "Guys are embracing their roles now. Coming into the season, we had young guys, and they were unsure of their roles. So it's hard to play to the best of your ability when you're not sure what you're doing. But I think guys are getting more sure. They're coming together."
The Wildcats held a 38-29 halftime lead on American (8-5), which defeated St. Joseph's during an eight-game winning streak earlier in the season. 'Nova missed its first nine shots of the second half, but the Eagles managed only four points during that time, and a dry spell of 6 minutes, 44 seconds doomed their chances.
The Cats scored 12 consecutive points during the drought and extended their lead to 50-33. The margin reached 20, 67-47, with three minutes remaining on a three-point basket by JayVaughn Pinkston, who matched Wayns for team-high honors with 12 points.
Everyone contributed in Wright's nine-man rotation. Mouphtaou Yarou, still not fully recovered from a sprained right ankle, had 10 rebounds. Freshman Ty Johnson, who started in Wayns' place, chipped in with five assists against one turnover.
Wright praised the defense of Pinkston and James Bell against American's Charles Hinkle, who entered the game averaging 22 points. Hinkle finished with 17, two behind teammate Blake Jolivette, but shot 6 of 15.
So, generally, the night was a positive for Villanova. It won't be so easy the next time.
"Now we go to Morgantown," Wright said. "Now it's on, so we'll see what we can do with the big boys."