Let the real test begin

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The non-conference schedule is essentially over and thankfully the Big East schedule begins for undefeated UC on Tuesday.


CINCINNATI - From the opening minutes Thursday night felt more like a reward than a real game. The traditional starters stepped into the shadows as the second team heard their name called during introductions.


The 2-10 Red Flash elicited as much fear as the UC dance team in plaid schoolgirl uniforms.


An adulation of ally-oops, Alex Eppensteiner behind-the-back dribbles and Justin Jackson 3-pointers filled Fifth Third Arena for one final time this season.


The surprising crowd of 5,504 who apparently received word this team is worth watching, soaked in the show like kids on Christmas morning.


Thursday was the time to celebrate 12-0. Thursday was the time to celebrate the best start since 2003-04. Thursday was the time to forget the 330th ranked strength of schedule and enjoy what this team built over the past nine months.


You can call some of the attempted highlight layups and no-look passes sloppy, but they were deserved.


This was a night to be enjoyed. A night to be enjoyed because all of the laid-back conclusions are about to be sucked right out of this season.


Few schedules are more treacherous in all of sports than the grind through the Big East. It swallows the strongest of players. It spits out the best of coaches.


It begins Tuesday.


"It's time to handle business," Sean Kilpatrick said. "It's time to get down to the nitty-gritty. It was a good test thought to see where everyone was and how everything was going for our season. I feel we are ready for the Big East."


Are they?


Twelve wins and no losses into the season, what do we know? The Bearcats are ready. Or at least, as ready as they'll ever be.


Over the course of the first third of the year, those traits associated with winning teams surfaced. Larry Davis spoke about an unselfish attitude this season that didn't exist even a year ago.


"I feel better about this team because I see a lot of maturity," Davis said. "Like we went to Miami and got down we didn't start arguing, we didn't start crying. We just came back as a team."


The confidence showed in the smooth stroke of each of the 12 3-pointers buried Thursday night. The much-needed understanding of the offense illustrated with each of the 23 assists.


They enter in the top 20 in the country in fewest turnovers, assist-turnover ratio, points allowed, FG percentage defense and wins.


None of it matters.


The recurring quote from every Mick Cronin press conferences over the past two months has been, "our fate will be decided in the Big East."


Entering that portion of the schedule, Cronin holds the same cautious optimism he's shown the past two months. This team isn't what it needs to be yet, but there's plenty to like.


"If you were to say to me what do I like the most, I say defensively we're pretty consistent," Cronin said. "We've been pretty good at taking people out of what they want to do.

"We're getting there. We got some younger guys. They are still improving. You got to get better."


Staring down somewhere in the vicinity of 10 games against teams in the top 20 in the country, their fact they need to improve isn't discovering water on Mars.


The halfcourt offense remains inconsistent. As does the offensive output of Gates. While shooting a full seven percentage points better from 3-point range this season than last, the team must learn not to rely on it as much.


"We need to make sure we get good shots with our execution," Cronin said. "That's my biggest concern, because that's the problem we had last year."


Teams this year have matched the Bearcats' intensity, but none have matched their talent level. That changes over the next two months and figuring out how to adjust may be the difference between NIT and NCAA.


"One thing I know, it's a lot harder to score in January and February than November and December," Cronin said. "The games become more physical, everybody has scouting and preparation on your team. You have to be able to still get what you want on teams and not let them take you out of stuff."


For one last night, the Bearcats enjoyed the concept of scoring in November and December. They believe they are ready. And finally, mercifully, thankfully, we are all about to find out.

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