CINCINNATI -- Bragging rights will be on the line at 7 p.m. Thursday when the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout returns to Fifth Third Arena, but until then, college hoops fans have several solid days to argue the mettle of No. 19 Cincinnati and No. 24 Xavier.
There's no debating the importance of the game. The non-conference finale for both teams is a coveted resume-booster; the Musketeers are ranked 15th in the latest NCAA RPI and the Bearcats are 16th.
Xavier (14-5, 4-3 Big East) needs a quality true road win after missing opportunities at Baylor, Colorado, Villanova and Butler. Cincinnati (17-2, 7-0 American Athletic Conference) needs validation it won't receive from multiple conference peers, since half rank below 100 in the RPI.
When it comes down to it, the best team Thursday night will win. But which team is best right now?
"The definition of 'best' is so fungible and it's so easily misinterpreted," Sporting News senior writer Mike DeCourcy said. "It's not something that I really love discussing. To me, it's one of the reasons they play.
"I think I can say comfortably that at this point, Cincinnati has come closer to finding what it wants to be than Xavier has to this point in the season," DeCourcy continued. "But it does offer some hope for Xavier that, in the time that remains, they can still accomplish a lot of what they want to do."
Mick Cronin's team is riding a 10-game winning streak into the Shootout and boasts a productive offense to go with its defense. Although the December romp over Fairleigh Dickinson (119-68) skews the stats, UC has beaten opponents by nearly 16 points.
The Bearcats have greater depth and consistency than Xavier, especially of late. The long-awaited return of suspended senior guard Myles Davis lasted less than two weeks. During his time on the roster, XU faced a gargantuan test in three straight games against Top 12 foes, including two on the road.
Xavier lost each outing, ensuring its first three-game skid since 2013-14.
That said, XU has won the last three Shootouts. Trevon Bluiett converted two free throws with 11 seconds left to clinch the Musketeers' win at Fifth Third Arena in 2014-15, and J.P. Macura also knows what it's like to leave UC's court victorious.
While that game might give the Musketeers confidence heading into this edition of the Shootout -- they know the rowdy crowd they'll face, the energy-charged environment -- UC has its own incentives.
"You don't want to close your career having lost every single time. Kevin (Johnson) is a local kid, so that would matter to him, and Troy (Caupain) is a Bearcat through and through. So I'm sure that that is something that would mean a lot to him. It works both ways," DeCourcy said.
Johnson said Monday that he's excited for the game from a competition standpoint as an elite-level match-up. Because current players from UC and XU do not play summer league ball anymore, Johnson said, there's nothing personal about the outing.
The senior guard would love to beat Xavier once in his career.
"It would be a great capping stone for me, I can definitely say that," Johnson said. "And just for the team, just going with our mission. It'll just be everything for me my senior season."
Johnson and Caupain are fourth-year Bearcats while Xavier's seniors, RaShid Gaston and Malcolm Bernard, have never played in a Shootout. Gaston practiced with XU last year after transferring from Norfolk State, so he has an understanding of the contest; Bernard joined the team last summer as a grad transfer.
After Sunday's victory over Georgetown at Cintas Center, Xavier coach Chris Mack was asked whether player experience was a factor in the Shootout.
"I don't know. Every game's different," Mack said. "You have different guys that play well that maybe both sides didn't expect to play well. Sometimes your mainstays throw up a donut. It's one wild game sometimes. I'd rather have experience, though. UC's got it, too."
DeCourcy doesn't think seniors' status predicates wins in the rivalry series, but he could see Caupain setting the tone Thursday.
"He's had one of the most underrated seasons in college basketball to this point. It's been complete command almost all the time, made sure that the ball went where it needed to go under the most important circumstances -- whether that meant him taking the shot or him getting someone else set up. So he certainly has the ability to make that matter," DeCourcy said.
"But he's got a great match-up in (Xavier point guard) Edmond (Sumner), who's a terrific talent and has had some spectacular moments. From a pure talent standpoint, he's as gifted as anybody that Troy has faced."
Statistically, UC scores more points and allows fewer than Xavier, but the Bearcats' strength of schedule is a pedestrian 59th in the country. The Musketeers' is 12th. They've played No. 1 Villanova, No. 11 Butler and No. 16 Creighton already and will face those very opponents again in the Big East's round-robin slate.
Another way to look at things: UC is 19th in the KenPom.com ratings, which evaluates the team's current level of play. The Musketeers are 27th.
The Bearcats should be favored by odds-makers for at least their home court. UC also was the team to beat when it was No. 1 in the country, and it twice lost to Xavier (at UC in 1996 and at the Cincinnati Gardens in 1999).
Whether one team is better than the other is probably best supplanted by a better question: Does it matter?
"In the end, they have to play the game," DeCourcy said. "One team has to out-execute the other and out-perform and get a little lucky with fouls."