What to watch for in major conference play

Michigan's Trey Burke

With league play finally here, we tell you what to watch for in the major conferences.

The first two months of the college basketball season have been educational. As college football's bowl season winds down and the NFL playoffs begin, it's almost time for college hoops to dominate the attention span. With conference play already under way this week, we look back at what we've learned about the six major conferences -- and offer a few predictions.

ACC

First impressions: Duke entered the season as a nice top-10 team, but there wasn't much chatter about the Blue Devils as a national championship contender. That has changed. Mike Krzyzewski's team quickly put together the most impressive resume in college basketball with wins over Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville, Ohio State and Temple. Mason Plumlee has been sensational. Seth Curry gives Duke an outside scoring threat and Quinn Cook has solidified the point guard spot.

North Carolina State was a popular preseason pick in the ACC. but the Wolfpack were quickly written off after losing to Oklahoma State and Michigan. Big mistake. Richard Howell's consistent play remains the key to NC State. North Carolina remains a work in progress and coach Roy Williams needs to get more from forward James Michael McAdoo.

Three players to watch: F Mason Plumlee, Duke, Sr.; F C.J. Leslie, NC State, Jr.; G Erick Green, Virginia Tech, Sr.

NC State will be a factor in the ACC with C.J. Leslie.

Biggest games: Virginia Tech at Maryland, Jan. 5; Duke at NC State, Jan. 12; North Carolina at NC State, Jan. 26; Duke at Maryland, Feb. 16; Duke at North Carolina, March 9.

Prediction: Maryland is going to climb into this conference race and make things even more interesting. Mark Turgeon's team has won 12 straight since losing to Kentucky in the season opener. Center Alex Len is ready for the spotlight. Duke will remain the team to beat until someone else proves otherwise -- and that might be sooner than you think.

BIG TEN

First impressions: The expectation is that the Big Ten race will be the most captivating of all. Why is that? For starters, there are four Big Ten teams -- Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State and Minnesota – among the top nine in this week's Associated Press Top 25. Two more -- Illinois and Michigan State -- are among the top 18.

Michigan guard Trey Burke and Indiana forward Cody Zeller are among the candidates for national player of the year. Ohio State's only losses have come to Duke and Kansas. Tubby Smith's Minnesota team may be the most pleasant surprise in the nation. Minnesota's only loss came at the hands of Duke, and the Gophers set an early tone in conference play with a 76-63 win over Michigan State. Tom Izzo's Spartans qualify as the most perplexing team so far, with losses to Connecticut, Miami and Minnesota.

Three players to watch: G Victor Oladipo, Indiana, Jr.; G Andre Hollins, Minnesota, Soph.; F Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State, Jr.

Keep an eye on Indiana's Victor Oladipo this season.

Biggest games: Michigan at Illinois, Jan. 27; Michigan at Michigan State, Feb. 12; Indiana at Minnesota, Feb. 26; Ohio State at Indiana, March 5; Indiana at Michigan, March 10.

Prediction: Look for the Big Ten race to go down to that final game of the regular season. Michigan's Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III prove to be too much for the Hoosiers at the Crisler Center.

BIG 12

First impressions: Where to start? Kansas might be a good place. In reality, it all begins and ends in Lawrence, doesn't it? The Jayhawks surprised everyone with last season's Final Four run and then lost Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor from that squad. But coach Bill Self has put together a starting lineup of four seniors -- Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Kevin Young -- and freshman sensation Ben McLemore that shouldn't have much trouble bringing a ninth consecutive Big 12 title home to KU.

McLemore leads the team in scoring. The Jayhawks can shoot it and share it, and Self's teams always play tremendous defense. Withey continues his remarkable evolution, averaging 13.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.9 blocks, but his most amazing season stats are these: 59 blocks and only 14 fouls in 12 games. Unbelievable.

Baylor is talented but inconsistent. Kansas State and Oklahoma State have been ranked. Iowa State continues to improve. West Virginia has disappointed. Missouri left for the SEC. The Jayhawks may not go undefeated in league play, but there isn't a true contender to the crown.

Kansas may be the team to beat, but Pierre Jackson and Baylor are ones to watch too.

Three players to watch: C Jeff Withey, Kansas, Sr.; G Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, Fr.; G Pierre Jackson, Baylor, Sr.

Biggest games: Oklahoma State at Kansas State, Jan. 5; Kansas at Kansas State, Jan. 22; Kansas State at Kansas, Feb. 11; West Virginia at Kansas State, Feb. 18; Kansas at Oklahoma State, Feb. 20.

Prediction: This isn't the most talented team Self has had at Kansas but a run to the Final Four is certainly possible. Right now, Self is the national coach of the year.

BIG EAST

First impressions: It's a shame this conference is falling apart. The Big East has always been about basketball and this season is no exception. Enjoy the next few weeks because it will never be the same.

Syracuse and Louisville, both eventually headed to the ACC, may stage a classic battle at the top. Or, in true Big East style, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh could complicate matters with their own runs. Don't forget Notre Dame and Georgetown -- both ranked in the AP Top 25. Connecticut is banned from postseason play, but first-year coach Kevin Ollie has the Huskies playing hard and they are determined to be a factor in the conference race. Jim Boeheim's run to 900 victories and into second place on the coaching charts has dominated the news, but the fact is that the Big East isn't far behind the Big Ten in terms of overall power.

Russ Smith and Louisville look like Final Four material.

Three players to watch: G Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse, Soph.; G Russ Smith, Louisville, Jr.; F Jack Cooley, Notre Dame, Sr.

Biggest games: Cincinnati at Syracuse, Jan. 21; Syracuse at Pittsburgh, Feb. 2; Louisville at Syracuse, March 2; Notre Dame at Louisville, March 9; Syracuse at Georgetown, March 9.

Prediction: Not sure that anyone has an answer for the backcourt of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, and that puts Louisville in a special place. As long as Gorgui Dieng remains healthy, the Cardinals have all the pieces to win the Big East and make a run at the national championship.

PAC-12

First impressions: There's no way to say this gently. The Pac-12 is pretty bad again. Take out Arizona and UCLA, and there's not much worth watching. The Bruins were a mess at the start of the season and Arizona may not deserve the lofty ranking it holds this week. But these are the two teams that will battle for the conference title -- unless there is some shocking development.

As freshman sensation Shabazz Muhammad and his classmates grow, UCLA will become a better team. That was evident in the victory over Missouri. We may look back at that win and say it was the turning point in UCLA's season. If the Bruins struggle at all, Ben Howland's job security will start to become a distraction and that's a difficult thing to deal with in the midst of conference play.

Shabazz Muhammad and UCLA still have time to turn it around in the Pac-12.

The addition of transfer Mark Lyons has been a key to Arizona's success. The Wildcats needed his leadership and he has made it work. Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill are veterans, and Sean Miller's freshmen are growing up fast. Stanford and Cal both have four losses and probably won't be a factor. There's still hope for Colorado, a team that was hot until a crushing loss at Kansas.

Three players to watch: G Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA, Fr.; G Mark Lyons, Arizona, Sr.; G C.J. Wilcox, Washington, Jr.

Biggest games: Cal at Stanford, Jan. 19; UCLA at Arizona, Jan. 24; Arizona at Colorado, Feb. 14; Washington at Arizona, Feb. 20; Arizona at UCLA, March 2.

Prediction: Muhammad will be the Pac-12 Player of the Year, but Arizona will win the regular-season conference title.

SEC

First impressions: It's all about Florida, Missouri and Kentucky. Yes, Ole Miss is 10-2 and LSU is 8-2 and teams such as South Carolina or Tennessee could pull an occasional upset. But the SEC really comes down to those three powerhouses.

John Calipari's team is not going to dominate the conference, run away and hide, or automatically reach the Final Four. Not this season. There is young talent in Lexington again but the pieces do not fit as easily as they did last season. The Wildcats showed improvement in their loss to Louisville, but Florida and Missouri are the teams that should battle it out for first place.

Kenny Boynton's Florida squad looks to have the edge in the SEC.

That's impressive for Missouri, as the Tigers are in their first season in the SEC. Frank Haith's team played very well defeating Illinois, but let a big road win get away at UCLA. Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, Mike Rosario and Patric Young form a nice nucleus for Billy Donovan's team at Florida. Despite the losses to Arizona and Kansas State, the Gators appear to be the team to beat.

Three players to watch: G Kenny Boynton, Florida, Sr.; G Phil Pressey, Missouri, Jr.; F Nerlens Noel, Kentucky, Fr.

Biggest games: Arkansas at Texas A&M, Jan. 9; Missouri at Ole Miss, Jan. 12; Kentucky at Florida, Feb. 12; Missouri at Kentucky, Feb. 23; Florida at Kentucky, March 9.

Prediction: Freshmen Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel will all leave Kentucky for the NBA after their first seasons. Florida, as mentioned above, is the team to beat.

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