BIG 5 GAMES are supposed to be scrum-like. It's right there in the bylaws.

Well, maybe it's time someone let this Villanova team in on the history lesson.

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On Dec. 4, the Wildcats beat Penn at home by 23 points. Last weekend they went to Saint Joseph's and won by 30. Good thing they were trailing late in the first half. Yesterday afternoon at the Pavilion, the nation's 10th-ranked club remained unbeaten with a 73-52 victory over La Salle.

They still have to go to Temple on Feb. 1, for those who like to plan ahead. The 4-4 Owls, who've already gotten past Penn (by five) at the Palestra and St. Joe's (by eight) on North Broad, visit La Salle in mid-January.

The 2005-06 Wildcats won their four City Series games by 83, which is believed to be a record. They also took three straight Big 5 games (against Penn, La Salle and Temple) in December, by 70. This group did it by 74.

"You don't expect this," said Jay Wright, who has won his first 10 for the first time since that 2005-06 season, which ended in the Final Eight. "Sometimes our guys not being as familiar with all the history is a good thing. Usually it bites us in the butt. All they know is La Salle is a team that went to the Sweet 16 last year, and it's their next game. Thank God.

"Same way with St. Joe. Tough environment, against a really good team. Last year we were lucky to beat them. The year before we got hammered there. I'm sure [senior] James Bell tells them that. Sometimes it works to our advantage. And I think that's what's happening right now with this group."

The Explorers (5-5), who had won their last two, beat Villanova last season for the first time in a decade, in overtime. And 2 years ago the game at Villanova also went into OT. This one was close for a half. Then, just like that, it wasn't. The Wildcats can do that.

"Their skill level is extremely high," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "They're an infinitely better team than they were 8 months ago. They were a pretty good team 8 months ago. They're just better. Every single one of them has improved."

The Wildcats host Rider on Saturday. On Dec. 28, they'll be at Syracuse, which has also yet to lose.

"It's early," Wright said. "We haven't played a conference game yet."

Since Syracuse is now in the ACC, that Big East opener will be New Year's Eve at Butler, one of the three newcomers.

These Big 5 routs won't matter to Syracuse or Butler. But it still has meaning for a lot of folks around here.

"From my perspective, I didn't take too much notice until I came here," said junior guard Darrun Hilliard, who's from Bethlehem. "But it's important to us."

The Explorers, who host Wagner on Thursday, scored the last six in the first half to make it 38-34. Eight minutes into the second half it was 57-39.

It never got closer than 15.

The Wildcats only got three points on seven shots from Bell, who averages 17. And seven on six from JayVaughn Pinkston, 10 less than his norm.

Hilliard finished with 21. Freshmen Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins were the only other two to reach double digits, with 13 and 11.

It's that kind of team.

"We have depth," Wright said. "Productive depth. It's a unique group. They have a high basketball IQ. And the three freshmen came in real mature. That allowed us to mature quickly."

La Salle got 20 from Jerrell Wright, but 18 were in the first 20 minutes. Shooting has been a problem and it was again. The Explorers were 1-for-13 from the arc, and 6-for-21 from anywhere in the second half. Nobody else scored more than seven.

"We've regressed," Giannini said. "Not in the last week. We're not the same players, for a multitude of reasons. Our guards who are struggling are proven players . . .

"Villanova won this game over the last 8 months. You don't get like this quickly. They put in the work. Jenkins is making threes, and he's about their eighth-best shooter. And they're really hungry."

Nobody wins anything in December. It's always about March. Still . . .

"It's good to be 10-0, I guess," Hilliard said. "But we have a lot of work to do. There's always room to get better. We don't want to settle."

And Villanova has had teams that started out well but for whatever reasons weren't able to finish. Even recently.

"You can slip, and not necessarily get it back," Wright said. "Or you can get better, do some great things. It's a journey.

"I was concerned about this. But they just handled it."

Why not? The schedule said it was their next one.