CINCINNATI - It hasn't happened all that often.

Villanova won the Big East regular-season title in 1981-82 and tied for first the following year. The Wildcats also earned the top seed in 1996-97, when they took their half of what was then a two-division conference. And they were the No. 2 seed in their Elite Eight season of 2005-06, when they lost the tiebreaker with Connecticut.

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Last night at the Cintas Center, a team that was picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll secured the No. 1 spot in next week's Big East Tournament in New York by beating Xavier (20-11, 10-8) on Senior Night, 77-70. It means the sixth-ranked Wildcats (27-3, 15-2) will play in the opener of the afternoon session of Thursday's quarterfinals instead of early that evening. It's also the first time they've won this many Big East games.

And while it's true that UConn, Syracuse, West Virginia, Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville are no longer part of the neighborhood, it's still some accomplishment, even though it won't mean a whole lot when the NCAA Tournament gets going in 2 weeks. But hey, having another banner to hang in the Pavilion rafters can never be a minor thing.

The Wildcats still have a chance to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Xavier, one of the three newcomers, is just trying to make sure it gets in the 68-team field. The Musketeers had won six of their last seven home games vs. ranked opponents. That included Saturday's win over Creighton, which of course has embarrassed Villanova twice. But X, which was upset Monday at Seton Hall, was playing without top rebounder Matt Stainbrook (strained knee ligaments) and the Wildcats won the rebound battle, 38-30. Also, the 'Cats had beaten Xavier by 23 on the Main Line in early February. Still . . .

"To come into this place, it's first time here, what a great environment," said coach Jay Wright, who tied a program record by losing 19 times 2 years ago. "To clinch a championship on the road speaks to the leadership. Our play on the road has been incredible. If you can't win on the road, you're not going to win any championships. This was a great example."

The Wildcats will close tomorrow in South Philly against Georgetown, another team that needs to keep impressing the Selection Committee. So now they can just kind of enjoy that one for a change, right?

"Imagine if we had to go home at 2 o'clock on Saturday afternoon knowing we needed it [to clinch]," said Wright, who moved into a tie with St. John's legend Lou Carneseca for fifth on the all-time Big East victory list with 139, which includes the tourney. "It would have been another challenge. But knowing these guys, they probably would have done it."

They led this one by five at the half, following a slow start. With 10 minutes left it was a 10-point game, even though they went through one stretch where they went 1-for-10 from the field. Every time X made a move, they responded. It was 69-57 with 1:35 to go. But somehow it wasn't over. The Muskies had missed their first 11 three-pointers of the half. Now they made three straight. Villanova helped by making a couple of mistakes and missing a couple of free throws. And when Semaj Christon made a midrange jumper at the 24-second mark, the Muskies had drawn within one possession. Then freshman Josh Hart made two freebies at 19.4, and senior James Bell did likewise 8 seconds later to end things.

"I'm thinking, 'What worse can happen?' " said Wright. "But it doesn't affect them."

Bell, who went scoreless in Sunday's home win over Marquette, again got into early foul trouble. But he finished with 12 points to go over 1,000 for his career, and had a team-high eight rebounds despite playing the final 4:03 with four personals.

"Scoring's nice, but it's not what defines me as a player," he said. "This is a testament to how hard we've worked, and where we've come from. It's definitely big, but we can't stop here. We want to take it as far as it can go."

Darrun Hilliard had 15 of his 19 in the first 20 minutes. JayVaughn Pinkston, who also finished with four fouls and was limited to 19 minutes, had 13 of his 15 after intermission. Eight of those were in the final 7 minutes, when he made both ends of two one-and-ones. Ryan Arcidiacono had 11 to go with seven assists.

"I think we did a good job of staying together," said the team's other senior, Tony Chennault, a Philly guy who spent his first two seasons at Wake Forest. "It takes a team, collectively."

Justin Martin, who didn't do much in the first meeting, topped X with 20. Christon, who never came out, had 18. But he took 22 shots. The word is, this may have been his last game here, even though he's just a sophomore.

Villanova got 18 points from its bench, or 15 more than Xavier, including nine from Kris Jenkins on three treys.

Every team is ultimately defined by what goes down in the Madness. But there are moments to savor along the way. This will be way up there.

"We have great respect for this league," Wright stressed. "To win it is a hell of an accomplishment."

If it wasn't, they'd have a lot more of those banners.

On Twitter: @mikekerndn