Status check for conference play


As nonconference games finish out their final spots on the calendar, it's time for midterm evaluations heading into league play.

The Big Ten as a conference was a big winner during the 2013 portion of the schedule. It could once again produce the most competitive race for a league title, with Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa headlining arguably the nation's deepest conference. What we learned from nonconference play is that some schools were a surprise and now find themselves among the favorites favorites (Villanova); others are surprised they need conference play to make an impression (Virginia); while others have performed as expected (Arizona). Here's a look at what teams are ahead of the curve and what teams are in need of one:


Head of the class: Syracuse's C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis lead the New York invasion of Tobacco Road. Duke may lack size in the frontcourt, but it's way more than just Jabari Parker. North Carolina has proved it can beat anybody, with three wins over teams ranked in the top 20.
Honor roll potential: They still play defense in Tallahassee -- Florida State is second in field goal percentage defense (37.3) in the ACC -- making the Seminoles a dreaded date on every team's calendar. Pittsburgh is still somewhat mysterious due to its soft nonconference schedule, but coach Jamie Dixon's track record gets the benefit of the doubt here.
Headed for detention: Virginia and Notre Dame both were ranked in the preseason Top 25 polls and both took quick and precipitous falls. The Cavs still seem allergic to scoring, as demonstrated by their 48-38 loss to Wisconsin. The Irish were underachieving even before leading scorer Jerian Grant was forced to leave school due to academics.


Head of the class: Louisville took a big hit with the dismissal of junior forward Chane Behanan from the team, but coach Rick Pitino still has a lot of experience left on the roster. Memphis' win over Oklahoma State provided a much-needed confidence boost against ranked teams. UConn has made a living winning games decided by a basket (Tuesday's loss at Houston notwithstanding) and Shabazz Napier has established himself as the guy you want to take that last shot.
Honor roll potential: Larry Brown's second season at SMU has the Mustangs primed to make a statement.
Headed for detention: Temple figured to be a bit in rebuilding mode, but losing to Texas Southern at home was unacceptable.

Atlantic 10

Head of the class: Chaz Williams leads five players in double figures in scoring, but the length and athleticism for UMass makes it tough defensively. Saint Louis' two losses came to Wichita State and Wisconsin by a combined 11 points. The Billikens just don't hurt themselves. VCU (which could sit atop the ACC standings with wins over Virginia, Boston College and Virginia Tech) took some blows early, but appears to be back on track.
Honor roll potential: Dayton got everyone's attention with its defeat of Gonzaga and near-upset of Baylor at the Maui Invitational. Jordan Sibert can go for 20 any game.
Headed for detention: La Salle returned six of the top seven players in its rotation from last year's Sweet 16 team. The Explorers haven't lived up to high expectations for this season as the losses pile up.

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