Status check for conference play

ByC.L. BROWN via <a href="" title="SportCenter" class="espn_sc_byline">SPORTSCENTER </a>
January 02, 2014, 7:12 PM

&#151; -- 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.

Big East

Head of the class: Villanova's James Bell and JayVaughn Pinkston are as tough a duo to guard as any in the nation. Creighton's Doug McDermott has it poised for a title in its first year in the league.

Honor roll potential: Xavier had early stumbles but is trending in the right direction after winning six straight.

Headed for detention: Marquette coach Buzz Williams' decision to play a challenging schedule backfired when the Golden Eagles failed to win a marquee game. Until they win a game when they're not the favorite, the once-perceived conference front-runner will likely be a middle-of-the-pack team.

Big Ten

Head of the class: Ohio State is void of an individual superstar on offense, but the Buckeyes seem to work better that way. The ability of Wisconsin's Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky to play inside or out is a headache for opposing coaches doing scouting reports. If Michigan State can stay healthy, coach Tom Izzo will once again have it contending for a national title.

Honor roll potential: Iowa's only two losses came by a combined six points to Villanova in overtime and at Iowa State. Illinois' Rayvonte Rice and Indiana's Yogi Ferrell had a scoring duel Tuesday indicative of how close games in the league will be this season. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino is turning the Barn back into a place you don't want to visit.

Headed for detention: Even before the bad news hit that Mitch McGary needed back surgery, Michigan fell from top 10 to not mentioned at all. The Wolverines are facing withdrawal after being spoiled by the playmaking abilities of Trey Burke last season.

Big 12

Head of the class: The prevailing thought is all of Kansas' uber-talented freshmen will grow up as the season continues, which means the road to the league title still goes through Lawrence. Oklahoma State will be hurt from the loss of Michael Cobbins, but the Cowboys still take solace in having arguably the best player in the nation in Marcus Smart. Baylor boasts one of the toughest frontcourts in the land and its proclivity to rebound will keep the Bears in most games.

Honor roll potential: Iowa State could very well run the table at home. But that theory will be tested with Kansas and Baylor in two of its first three league games in Hilton Coliseum.

Headed for detention: Maybe it's hard to find fault because the Big 12 is the one conference that has fewer teams than advertised, but it would just be nitpicking to call out a team here. Even those predicted for the cellar have not hit rock bottom.

Mountain West

Head of the class: San Diego State didn't need its 83-point win over St. Katherine to validate its status as a front-runner. Its wins over Creighton and Marquette, and playing Arizona tough, were enough to solidify that the Aztecs are legit.

Honor roll potential: Boise State fell short of getting a signature win against Kentucky and Iowa State, but the Broncos are still formidable.

Headed for detention: New Mexico got bounced from the Top 25 polls early, although Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow could fulfill their potential at any time. UNLV may avoid detention having won six straight after a bumpy stretch that saw it lose four of six early -- and that doesn't include its exhibition loss to Dixie State.


Head of the class: Arizona has maintained its No. 1 ranking for four weeks and the Wildcats are really just scratching the surface of how good they can be. Houston transfer Joseph Young may be better than expected for Oregon, which remains undefeated.

Honor roll potential: Colorado's win over Kansas showed it will be especially tough in Boulder. UCLA has the talent and a high-powered offense, but does it have the toughness to stop teams defensively?

Headed for detention: California has lost both its road games by an average of 10.5 points.


Head of the class: Florida challenged itself during nonconference play and came out looking like a Final Four contender despite often not having its full roster. Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin helped the Gators pass Kentucky as the SEC favorite. The Wildcats finally beat a ranked team with their win over Louisville and showed they're more than just Julius Randle in the process.

Honor roll potential: Missouri was 4.6 seconds away from still being undefeated, but lost to Illinois by one on a pair of late free throws. Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson, who combine to average 38 points per game, are going to be a handful. Arkansas has quietly built its confidence and will know how good it is when Kentucky and Florida visit in consecutive games in two weeks.

Headed for detention: Tennessee's win over fellow underachiever Virginia was a good win heading into conference play, but a loss to UTEP and at home to NC State were big disappointments. Alabama may have scheduled too ambitiously and has lost four of its last five despite the standout play of Trevor Releford.

Best of the rest

Wichita State has already played three true road games and should dominate the Creighton-less Missouri Valley -- although remaining undefeated throughout seems unlikely. Toledo's undefeated streak came to a halt at Kansas, but the Rockets are poised to make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1980 this season. Gonzaga, already 2-0 in West Coast Conference play, sprinkled in a date with Memphis in February to compensate for a league that has struggled as a whole. Both BYU, a loser in four of its last five, and St. Mary College, which lost three straight before winning its WCC opener at Pacific. What would a dean's list be without Harvard? The Crimson lost at Colorado, but look like they will be back in the NCAA tournament.

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