Bruins to step it up a notch

NEW YORK -- UCLA faces its toughest test of the young season when it faces No. 7 Villanova in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-off Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

The game is at 6 p.m. Pacific and will be televised on ESPN2.

Villanova (4-0) features an experienced group with three seniors starting and one of the nation’s best backcourts in guards Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes.

Fisher is a Wooden Award and Naismith Award candidate and averaging 16.5 points a game, but the Wildcats have a balanced attack with four starters averaging in double figures scoring and center Mouphtaou Yarou right behind at 9.3 points per game.

The team returns three starters from its No. 2 seeding in the NCAA tournament last season, and marks a step up in competition for UCLA (3-0), which has defeated Cal State Northridge, Pedderdine and Pacific this season.

“We’re stepping up into a whole different level when you’re talking about a level of team that we’re going to play,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. “They’re a deserved top-10 team and have a lot of experience.”

Villanova was upset by St. Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, and even though All-American Scottie Reynolds graduated, the Wildcats are picked to finish second in the Big East this year.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Howland said. “It is going to be a challenge. This is a different level than what we played in our first three games. To play a top-10 team … is going to be a very good challenge for our players.”

Both teams have played solid defense so far this season. Villanova is giving up 51.5 points a game and UCLA is giving up 54.3. It figures to be a true indication of exactly how much UCLA’s new up-tempo transition game has progressed.

“I think you are going to see some tough, physical games with some very good teams that respect being a part of this over this holiday weekend,” Villanova Coach Jay Wright said. “Going against UCLA, it is going to be a grind but it is going to be great basketball.”

This is the fifth all-time meeting between the schools, the last coming when Villanova defeated UCLA, 89-69, in the second round of the 2009 NCAA tournament. The series is tied, 2-2, and UCLA’s first victory in the series game in the 1971 NCAA title game.

Villanova features three players who are from New York and figures to have a huge home court advantage playing so close to its home in Philadelphia, so Howland is treating this as a road game, not a neutral court game.

“It’s a definitely road game,” Howland said. “They’ll have a good crowd there supporting them. They get there in an hour and it takes us six.”