If Sunday's matchup with seventh-ranked Villanova was supposed to be the definitive litmus test for whether previously undefeated Cincinnati is legit or not, then the answer is unequivocally ... maybe.
In the first half, the magnitude of the game, stifling defensive pressure from Villanova and a handful of dubious whistles caused the Bearcats to lose their composure and fall behind by as many as 16 points. In the second half, the lead ballooned to 21 before a combination of resilience from Cincinnati and disinterest from Villanova enabled the Bearcats to claw their way back and take some moral victories from the setback.
It all added up to a 72-61 victory for Villanova that provided little clarity but left the vague impression that Cincinnati may be NCAA tournament-caliber but probably isn't a Big East contender. The Wildcats had the experience, grit and outside shooting prowess to never let the Bearcats closer than seven points in the second half.
Many pointed to this game as a gauge of how good Cincinnati is because it was the first ranked opponent the Bearcats had faced. Sure, they were one of only six remaining undefeateds entering Sunday but the only two decent wins they'd notched were against Xavier and Dayton, two teams who have not proven themselves yet this season.
Where Cincinnati lost its chance for a statement victory was during an 11-minute stretch spanning both halves during which Villanova outscored the Bearcats 25-6.
Referees hit coach Mick Cronin with a technical foul with 2:06 left in the half for arguing that JaQuon Parker was fouled on a shot in the lane. That appeared to give the rest of the Bearcats license to lash out at the referees and let their frustration get the best of them, culminating in Ibrahima Thomas fouling out with 18:28 left after being called for a technical foul.
The Bearcats eventually cooled off, generated some offense with their defense and narrowed the gap, but dreadful outside shooting proved to be their undoing. They shot 2 of 20 from three-point range, a product of poor shot selection, a lack of commitment to getting the ball inside to Yancy Gates and Villanova's trademark aggressive perimeter defense.
The good news for those of us still scratching our heads at what to make of Cincinnati is that the Bearcats have plenty of games left against ranked opponents.
Three straight road games against Syracuse, Notre Dame and St. John's follow next Wednesday's home game against South Florida. By the end of that stretch, we should finally have a better idea how good the Bearcats are.