VILLANOVA OPENED its basketball season on Nov. 14. The 15th-ranked Wildcats have played seven more times since then. They've won them all, by at least 13 points. It wouldn't be a stretch to say they haven't played anyone that's projected to make the NCAA Tournament.

Which brings us to tonight's game against No. 6 Texas (6-1) at Madison Square Garden. It's the first and only time the Wildcats will play outside Philadelphia before their Jan. 1 Big East opener at Marquette.

So, is this one a valid barometer, or simply the next game on the schedule?

Obviously, this is their most defining game so far. Even if they still have to deal with Saint Joseph's on Thursday, La Salle on Sunday and Temple on Dec. 29.

"If the next game were someone other than Texas, it would still be big for us," said junior guard Reggie Redding. "Sure, we want to see where we are. But the goal is always to play better than we played the last game. That never changes.

"We could play better than we've played until now, and still lose. So you can't measure [just] by that. You always want to see how you stack up against the best competition. But it's one game. It's not the end of the world. We could win, then lose our next five in a row. Or we could lose, and win the five after that. Win or lose, we've got St. Joe's coming up. That's the way we have to look at it.

"It's a long season. There's always going to be more challenges."

Even if reality suggests they really are not all created equal.

"We know people are saying that we actually haven't had a game yet, that this is the first great test for us, but they're all important," said senior forward Dante Cunningham. "At this point, all the rankings are is a way for a lot of people to get an understanding as to how good a team may be or could possibly be. It's still early. We'll have to see.

"You want to win every time you step on the floor, regardless of who's out there with you. We play for each other. Not for the crowd, or anyone else. Just the guys in that locker room. If you win, everyone wants to pat you on the back. When it goes the other way, that's all you have going for you, is each other."

The Wildcats played at Texas on Jan. 14, 2006. They lost by three. It was their second loss of the season. They would drop only three more, the last to eventual national champ Florida in the Elite Eight. Texas also lost in that round, to LSU (in overtime).

They met again 12 months later, in South Philly. The Wildcats took that one, by seven.

"This is not our season," said junior guard Scottie Reynolds, who is good friends with forward Damion James, the Longhorns' second-leading scorer. "It's a chance to see where we are, like every game is. But it's not our final test, or whatever. We've got a lot of games after this. If we win, it doesn't make us the best team. We want to be the best team at the end of the season. And that's why we can't listen to the outside.

"Right now, the perception is we're the [15th]-best team in the country. But it doesn't matter. Because right now, it's all perceptions. Maybe, if it was May 1st or something, it would be a little different."

Whether that's simply the company line, who knows? But from an outside standpoint, it's sure more appealing than anything that's presented itself in the opening month.

The Longhorns just beat UCLA, in Austin. They also beat St. Joe's, in last month's Maui Invitational. That's where they suffered their lone blemish, a one-point loss to No. 12 Notre Dame.

"You always look at the schedule to try and figure out where you want to be," said 'Nova coach Jay Wright. "I don't think 2 weeks ago we would've been ready for this. In terms of depth, I know we weren't. And maybe not [even] mentally.

"This time of year [the rankings are] just projections. There's no denying how good [Texas is]. It's exciting. The kids understand that. We don't have to create the intensity. And on Wednesday we'll be excited about St. Joe's."

Because, other than the fact that it's the Holy War, the Hawks got next. *