Tomorrow (5 p.m., ESPN2), the Big 5's best two teams over the recent past will meet once again at the Liacouras Center. Villanova (5-3), which has no seniors and five freshmen, isn't ranked. Neither are the Owls (5-2), who returned four senior starters. Right now, two aren't playing because of injuries, the same two that were sidelined at the end of last season. Swingman Scootie Randall is still not 100 percent after undergoing offseason knee surgery, and forward Micheal Eric just reinjured the same knee that forced him out last February.
But Fran Dunphy can coach a little, the Daily News has learned. If nothing else, he has plenty of guards that can play some, too. And not just Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez. Junior Khalif Wyatt would start for many teams. He scored 11 points, to go with four assists and as many rebounds, in 18 minutes in Wednesday's 77-58 win at Toledo, where he didn't start after arriving late for a film session. Freshman Will Cummings did start and had six points and five boards in 21 minutes. Sophomore Aaron Brown scored a team-high 19 off the bench, on 7-for-10 shooting. And T.J. DiLeo's the kind of guy every team should have around to help, just because.
It looks as if Randall might return by the end of the month. The timetable for Eric is probably more along the lines of mid-January. Since the journey is mostly about what you are when the Madness finally arrives, there's no reason to think the Owls still can't get there in at least reasonably worthy shape.
"Obviously everybody's roles have changed," Dunphy said. "That's what happens in life. You move on, when you're presented with a whole new challenge. That's the great thing about college basketball.
"[Villanova's] as good a team as we're going to play all year long. They've still got a lot of talent. I always think of this game in terms of measuring ourselves. It's been huge for us within the city. You just have to look at their success. So it's special when we play."
This was supposed to be a transition season on the Main Line, coming off an implosion of a finish. The Wildcats have dropped three of their last four. On Tuesday they lost to No. 10 Missouri by 10 in New York. Everyone should have realized it wasn't going to be easy, or necessarily pretty, particularly early. Jay Wright's job is to keep getting things in better shape moving forward. In the Big East, even a Big East that doesn't figure to get close to 11 NCAA bids again, that can be problematic. The Wildcats will be without reserve big man Maurice Sutton (dislocated thumb), one of their better defenders, for another 3 weeks or so.
Tickets remain, but it's expected to be a sellout. Once-beaten, No. 8 Villanova won last Dec. 30 at the Pavilion, 78-74 over a 9-2 Temple club.
Last month, the Wildcats had to rally to beat La Salle in overtime, 24 hours after Temple had outlasted Penn in OT at the Palestra.
"It's always going to be a good game," said Villanova junior lead guard Maalik Wayns, who's close with Moore and Wyatt. "We really want to beat those guys. For us it's just the same as playing Syracuse, Connecticut or someone like that. It'll be intense, like a Big East environment. And it's probably going to come down to the end, like most Big 5 games. We've played in great places. I'm kind of used to it. It might be tough for the young guys. They should embrace it.
"I think we feel like the underdogs now. That's a good way to approach it. My first 2 years, we were ranked high, maybe we had a different attitude. We understand we're not where we want to be."
He'll get no arguments from Wright.
"There's parts of rivalries that are enjoyable," he said. "It brings out the competitiveness in you. It's a challenge. And there's a part of it that's crazy, too.
"The good thing is, when the players start playing it all goes away. They're just out there playing."