VILLANOVA'S basketball team won 20 games last season, after losing 19 the year before that.

Last night at the Pavilion, the team that just moved up three spots in the rankings to sixth improved to 20-2 by beating Xavier, 81-58.

The Wildcats still have nine more games left before the Big East Tournament.

Since losing by 28 to No. 12 Creighton in South Philly 2 weeks ago, they've won four straight. Three were on the road, all at places where they've had problems getting it done. On Friday, they'll host Seton Hall (13-9, 4-5 Big East), where they won by 16 in early January.

The 2005-06 Wildcats won 20 of their first 22 and ended up in the Final Eight. The 2009-10 edition also started 20-2 and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament before losing in the second round.

Draw whatever conclusions you feel are relevant.

This one was 28-22 after 20 minutes. On Saturday at Temple, they turned a five-point halftime lead into a 16-point win, as James Bell and Darrun Hilliard scored their first 16 after intermission. This time, they combined for 17 straight after JayVaughn Pinkston began the second half with a layup. The pair had 36 of Villanova's 53 after the break, which was 28 more than they had before that.

"Juniors [Hilliard] and seniors [Bell], man" said coach Jay Wright, whose team is tied with Creighton for first at 8-1 in the conference. "It's just so nice to have them in college basketball. They're really mature. They've seen it all. They've been through ups and downs. So nothing bothers them. They know what we need, and they come out and do it. Very simple."

Bell finished with 27, 12 more than his team-best average. He shot 10-for-14, 6-for-10 from the arc. He also had eight rebounds, which matched Pinkston for team high, to go with three assists and a block.

Hilliard scored 17, in a team-high 32 minutes, going 7-for-14 (2-for-5). He too had three assists, a swat and a steal. OK, and one of Villanova's seven turnovers. Sue him.

"[Bell's] a special leader," said Wright, who emphatically had more words than usual for him when he finally took him out near the end. "I was telling him, 'This is your team. Look what they're doing.' I keep pushing him. I want to love him up, he's such a good kid. [But] it's not time [yet]."

It was a four-point game with 16 minutes to go. Four minutes later, the margin was 15. The Wildcats shot 60 percent in the second half, 46 from three. It was more than enough to make you forget they missed half their free throws.

The Creighton game might have had an impact on a lot of teams. Not this one.

"It's a testament of what we've been through," Hilliard said. "A 13-19 season. Last year, not much was expected of us. We always keep coming. We're not going to stop. It's what we do, every day. Nothing special. Just work to get better."

Xavier (15-7, 5-4), which dropped its third straight, did not have the luxury of a shootaround because of the weather. One of the league's three newcomers, the Musketeers were playing their first game on the Main Line since the 1994 NIT. And it was the teams' first meeting since a 2006 tournament in the Virgin Islands.