OK, SO WHAT'S more surprising: that the Big East has three teams in the Top 12, or that Villanova isn't one of them?

Despite having to replace three starters from a group that last season set a program record with 33 wins, the Wildcats were the unanimous choice to win the conference once again. That's what happens when you have a four-year starter at point guard who was the co-Player of the Year, the returning Sixth Man of the Year (who's now starting) and another lead guard who was considered among the best in the freshman class. And it's a good place to be.

But it also comes with inherent burdens, whether they're realistic or not, especially after you've lost your second game of the NCAA Tournament two straight years as, first, a No. 2 seed, then as a 1. Of course, each journey is supposed to be its own entity. Too bad that's hardly the perception. So every time they don't win a big game, the noise from certain precincts begins anew. And I get that, because of the recent history. I just don't necessarily agree with all of it, which then means I'm making excuses.

I do know the 16th-ranked Wildcats (10-2) have won 72 of their previous 82. So they must be doing something right. Either that or they're mostly winning a bunch of meaningless games. Because I think they pretty much try to play the same way every time. So maybe their approach isn't as equipped to deal with the better opponents on the food chain. But I don't think that part of it will change. Coach Jay Wright tried to play bigger once and it didn't work out too well. And that was after he'd been to two Sweet 16s, a Final Eight and a Final Four in a five-year span, in case anyone remembers.

He's always been more comfortable going through his perimeter people. Which makes sense, since he has a much better chance of recruiting that kind of talent to the Main Line. Whether Villanova Nation wants to acknowledge it or not, this isn't Kentucky, Duke or even Connecticut we're talking about. Sorry.

That doesn't mean the Wildcats can't make deep runs into the Madness, even if it's been a while. It only means it's not necessarily a birthright, either. There's a reason Villanova has been to the Final Four twice since 1971. It's hard. Yet when Wright was making it to all of those second weeks in the second half of the century's first decade, well, maybe folks understandably started thinking it wasn't.

Neither does that mean they should be 0-3 in the second round since then as a No. 1 or 2 seed. But it's the same guy. I don't think he forgot how to coach.

In the first two seasons of the reconfigured Big East, Villanova went 32-4 combined, 35-5 if you include the postseason tourney. And there's been speculation that the lack of worthy competition might have had something to do with the early NCAA exits.

We could be about to find out whether it makes a difference.

On Thursday afternoon, the Wildcats open conference play by hosting No. 6 Xavier (12-0), which is off to its best start ever. They've won their previous 32 at the Pavilion. They visit No. 9 Butler (10-1) on Jan. 10. The Bulldogs beat Cincinnati (ranked 17th at the time) and Purdue (ninth), while losing to Miami, unranked at the time, but now 13th.

A month from now, Villanova will get No. 12 Providence (12-1) twice in two weeks. The Friars, who lost to Michigan State, beat Arizona (then 11th, now eighth). On the other hand, the Wildcats dropped what many would tell you are the only two games they played that count: to current No. 3 Oklahoma in Hawaii and at No. 5 Virginia, by a combined 34. Games scheduled at least partly with March Madness in mind.

In the old Big East, the landscape was filled with potential landmines. So the fact that it doesn't appear to be Villanova and everybody else - OK, two years ago there was also Creighton before it fizzled at the end - is probably a welcome change. For both the neighborhood and the program that's been its face. It might hurt the Wildcats' bottom line, but at this point the only thing that matters to most is whether they can win at least two games in the Madness. And they realize that. It's the world we live in.

Maybe they won't win the Big East. Maybe their resume won't be strong enough to get them a top-four seed in the East Regional, which would mean playing in South Philly if they can advance into the third round for the first time in seven years. A lot can happen in the next two months. Last year, they looked to be about as ready as anybody. For whatever reasons, it didn't work out.

It's impossible to appreciate the ride if you already think you know how it's going to end. That's a shame. Because this team still figures to be among the better ones out there. Right now, we know they weren't good enough to deal with Oklahoma or Virginia. But the same could be said for just about everyone else. And that's all we really know for sure for the time being.

Xavier, and beyond, awaits. They're probably not going to finish 29-2 in the regular season. The Wildcats who got to the Sweet 16 in 2008 went 19-11 in the regular season, losing five in a row at midseason, all by double digits. So it happens both ways. Maybe they're overdue. Or, perhaps they'll simply have what it takes when the time comes. And if they are, should it really take anyone by surprise?

On Twitter: @mikekerndn