NEW YORK - Villanova's basketball team had opened a season of high expectations by winning its first eight games, all by at least 13 points, to move from No. 24 to 15th in the polls.

Which, of course, means relatively little in early December. Especially when none of those victims figures to do the Wildcats much good in the dreaded Rating Percentage Index come Selection Sunday.

As usual, we'll find out most of what we need to know about them once that Big East portion of the schedule kicks in beginning on New Year's Day at Marquette.

Until then, it never hurts to have some kind of a more telling measurement.

Last night at Madison Square Garden, No. 6 Texas, which had already beaten UCLA and lost by one to Notre Dame, provided just such a national-level yardstick in the second half of the annual Jimmy V Classic that benefits the foundation for cancer research.

More than a few folks have projected the Longhorns to be Final Four worthy. The Wildcats have just about everything back from a team that snuck into the 65-team field and then made it to the Sweet 16.

Not surprisingly, for the first time so far, a Villanova game had a distinct postseason feel to it. Nothing wrong with that. And the Wildcats - who host Saint Joseph's tomorrow and go to La Salle Sunday - showed an ESPN audience that they belonged. Never anything wrong with that, either. Even if eventually it got away from them.

They didn't win. Maybe they weren't supposed to. They didn't come here to lose. But going down 67-58 to a bunch as loaded as Texas (7-1) isn't anything to get too depressed about.

"I was very impressed with Texas, looking at them overall,'' said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "They're tough on defense, aggressive on the glass. Some of the things we take pride in. They're ahead of us, in those areas, at this point in the season.''

Referring to 19 Villanova turnovers, Wright said, "We didn't take care of the ball. They did a good job pressuring our guards.

"We have work to do. We need to play in these [tough] games. We will, now."

There will be more challenges over the next several months. Plenty, in fact. It obviously would have been nice to get this one, but the Longhorns had just a little too much. Several months from now, who knows?

It was a three-point game with 10 minutes to go, despite the fact that the Wildcats were having trouble generating enough offense. But they were able to hang because they played some serious hoops at the other end. By the 5-minute mark, the margin was up to double digits for the first time.

Texas led at halftime, 32-26. The Wildcats (8-1) were up 12-5 after 7 minutes, before a 10-0 Longhorn spurt.

Dante Cunningham, Villanova's top scorer, had 12 by the break, only five off his average, on 5-for-8 shooting. He also had seven rebounds, also more than anybody else on the floor. He finished with 23 points and 12 boards.

"Dante's really developed into a confident scorer,'' Wright said. "We need to find more ways to get him the ball.''

Also in double figures for 'Nova, Corey Stokes had 11 points and Scottie Reynolds 10.

Texas supposedly had the edge inside, but the Wildcats had three more boards at halftime. The Longhorns had taken six more shots, and made four more baskets. Guard A.J. Abrams, coming off a career-high 31-point effort against UCLA, had eight. Damion James, a close friend of Reynolds, had seven.

"They were long, athletic, and there were lots of them,'' Cunningham said of the Longhorns, who eventually outrebounded the 'Cats, 39-36. "They were just everywhere.''

Said Reynolds: "Sometimes, they threw two or three guys at me. We go through that in practice. You have to play through it, and not get frustrated.''

Dwayne Anderson, who is recovering from a stress reaction in his left foot, played for just the second time this season, and first in three games. And he looked a lot better than the first time. At some point, Villanova is going to need him to get where it wants to go.

Tap-ins

In the first game, No. 23 Davidson (7-1) beat another Big East team, West Virginia (6-2), 68-65. Villanova will play the Mountaineers in Morgantown on Feb. 13. Davidson got a game-high 27 points from senior guard Stephen Curry, the darling of last season's March Madness. He also had 10 assists and four steals, to offset eight turnovers. He shot 9-for-27, 4-for-16 from the arc. Davidson was in the same regional as Villanova 9 months ago. Both lost to eventual national champion Kansas. West Virginia got 24 points and 14 rebounds from Da'Sean Butler, and 13 and 17 from Devin Ebanks . . .

Single-game tickets to all four of Villanova's Big East games in South Philadelphia, including its last game in the Wachovia Spectrum, will go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. The others are at the Wachovia Center, which also will be a host site for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in March, for the second time in 4 years. Priced at $25 and $35, tickets are available through ComcastTIX.com, Wachovia Complex Box Office, select ACME locations or by calling 1-800-298-4200. The Wildcats play Pittsburgh at the Spectrum on Jan. 28. Over at the Center, they've got Louisville on Jan. 10, Syracuse on Feb. 7 and Georgetown on Feb. 28. All four of those opponents are currently ranked in the top 19. *