The Big Ten figures to be a scamble.
Conference play is about to get underway, and nonconference results have helped established the likely title contenders and possible surprise teams in the major conferences.
Based on their play through Christmas and the teams' conference schedules, we picked the title contenders from those conferences, a favorite to win the conference title and a possible dark-horse team. The dark horse is a team that is not among the presumed favorites but seems capable of challenging for the conference championship if everything falls into place.
The 11 conferences deemed to be the major conferences for our purposes are the top 11 conferences in the RPI rankings. They are also the conferences that frequently get more than one team into the NCAA tournament.
The conferences are listed in reverse order of their perceived strength, with the top conference presented last.
Wichita State's Cleanthony Early
The Contenders: Wichita State, Indiana State
Indiana State was picked to finish second in the preseason coaches poll, and the Sycamores' road win over Notre Dame keeps them in the contender category. Indiana State returns four starters from last season's team, which beat Miami-Florida, Creighton and Wichita State. However, this season's loss to Tulsa makes you wonder whether Indiana State can be a threat to Wichita State.
The Favorite: Wichita State
Wichita State is undefeated and ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll. It returns several key components from the squad that got to the Final Four last season, including Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker. It's not surprising the Shockers were a unanimous preseason pick to win the conference title this season, and they have a shot to go through conference play undefeated.
They have not beaten a ranked opponent this season, with their best wins coming against BYU, Tennessee and St. Louis. It's still unclear how good the Shockers are, but with Creighton no longer in the Missouri Valley, they certainly look like the class of this conference.
The Dark Horse: Drake
Drake was picked to finish dead last in the Missouri Valley Conference. Although the Bulldogs have very little chance of finishing ahead of Wichita State, they could be the surprise team of the conference. They are 8-3, with one of those losses coming on the road to St. Mary's and another coming against Iowa. Guard Richard Carter is one of the most improved players in the country and is averaging nearly 20 points a game.
Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos
The Contenders: Gonzaga, St. Mary's, BYU
The St. Mary's Gaels' consecutive losses to South Carolina, Hawaii and George Mason in Hawaii have removed the luster from the Gaels' 9-0 start, which included a road victory over Boise State. The Gaels have finished no worse than second in the WCC in any of the past six seasons, and despite the loss of Matthew Dellavedova and the recent skid, they figure to challenge for the title again.
BYU has lost five games, but the Cougars have played the toughest schedule of any WCC team. Wins over Texas, Stanford and Utah State are better than they may seem, and the Cougars rank third in the nation in scoring.
The Favorite: Gonzaga
Gonzaga has won or shared the WCC regular-season title 14 of the past 15 seasons. The Bulldogs have the talent to win it again despite the loss of frontcourt stars Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris from the team that finished the 2012-13 regular season ranked No. 1.
Losses to Dayton and Kansas State have made the Bulldogs look vulnerable, and their nonconference schedule has not been as difficult as it was in past years.
The back injury to forward Sam Dower does not appear to be too serious, but it remains to be seen whether it will affect his play.
The Dark Horse: Pacific
In its first season in the WCC, Pacific was picked to finish seventh in the conference in the preseason coaches poll. But the surprising Tigers are 9-2 under first-year head coach Ron Verlin, with one of those losses coming against Oregon. They could challenge the three top contenders, all of whom seem vulnerable.
Four Pacific players average in double figures in scoring, but none averages more than 11.6 points.
San Diego State's Xavier Thames
The Contenders: San Diego State, New Mexico
New Mexico was the overwhelming pick to repeat as conference champion in the preseason media poll. It has three offensive stars in forward Cameron Bairstow, guard Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk.
The Lobos have played a challenging nonconference schedule, and beating Cincinnati was a good win. However, the loss to New Mexico State makes you wonder how this team will fare now that Steve Alford is no longer calling the shots.
The Favorite: San Diego State
The Aztecs were picked to finish fourth in the conference after losing their top two players from last season, Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. But coach Steve Fisher has them back in contention for a title.
They lost to No. 1 Arizona by nine points in Tucson for their only loss, and they beat Creighton and Marquette on a neutral court. Xavier Thames has emerged as the team's top player, and the Aztecs have benefited from the addition of forward Josh Davis, a rebounding machine who transferred from Tulane.
The Dark Horse: Boise State
The Broncos almost qualify as a contender, but we put them in the dark-horse spot because of their scoring potential. They have three losses, but all three were to quality teams (Kentucky, St. Mary's, Iowa State). Guards Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks make them a threat in every game.
Kentucky's James Young
The Contenders: Florida, Kentucky, Missouri
Missouri has the impressive win over UCLA, and the addition of Memphis transfer Jordan Clarkson makes the Tigers a threat, especially at home. The Tigers play Kentucky and Florida only once each this season, which helps. But their history of falling flat on the road will make it difficult to claim the Southeastern Conference title.
Kentucky certainly has the talent to win the SEC. Freshmen James Young, Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison along with sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein give the Wildcats a starting five that rivals any in the country.
They have yet to show they have the chemistry or defensive intensity to win key conference games on the road, however.
The Favorite: Florida
The Gators' only losses were on the road against Wisconsin and Connecticut, and their recent victories over Kansas and Memphis suggest Billy Donovan's club is progressing nicely. The emergence of senior guard Casey Prather as a star after he had been a bit player for three seasons has elevated the Gators to the favorite role. Florida does not have to play Missouri on the road.
The SEC title could be decided in Florida's final regular-season game against Kentucky on March 8 in Gainesville.
The Dark Horse: LSU
LSU has not done anything amazing during nonconference play, but its only two losses were to teams that are currently ranked: Massachusetts and Memphis. The Tigers are making progress under coach Johnny Jones, and they play Florida and Missouri only once each this season.
Massachusetts' Chaz Williams
The Contenders: Virginia Commonwealth, Massachusetts, Saint Louis
Virginia Commonwealth was the media's preseason pick to win the Atlantic 10 title, and the Rams' ferocious defense gives them a chance to live up to that projection. However, the three nonconference losses, especially the unexpected defeat against Northern Iowa, suggests they may not have the offensive weapons they need.
Saint Louis has many of the same players that helped it claim the conference's regular-season title last season. Its only two losses this season are to teams currently ranked in the Top 10 (Wisconsin and Wichita State), so the Billikens certainly have the wherewithal to repeat.
The Favorite: Massachusetts
This is a tenuous pick, because both VCU and Saint Louis are capable of knocking off the Minutemen. But UMass' Chaz Williams is the kind of playmaking point guard who can lift his team in critical situations. Massachusetts beat New Mexico, and its lone loss, to Florida State in Florida, is nothing to be embarrassed about.
The Dark Horse: Dayton
Losing at home to Southern California did not enhance the prospects of the Flyers, who were picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic 10. But their victory over Gonzaga and one-point loss to Baylor suggest they are better than the preseason projection.
Louisville's Russ Smith
The Contenders: Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis
Connecticut has a star in guard Shabazz Napier, but the Huskies' poor performance in a neutral-court loss to Stanford casts doubts on their ability to play at a consistently high level.
Memphis' win over Oklahoma State after being behind by 10 at halftime was impressive, and Joe Jackson gives the Tigers a proven backcourt star.
However, it's difficult to dismiss the blowout loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla.
The Favorite: Louisville
The Cardinals still have many of the pieces that helped them to the national title last season. The return of guard Russ Smith and the presence of coach Rick Pitino mean more than the loss to North Carolina. Louisville has had a fairly soft nonconference schedule, and it lost its only game against a quality opponent (North Carolina).
The Cardinals' Dec. 28 game at Kentucky will tell us more about their potential.
The Dark Horse: Cincinnati
The Bearcats handed Pittsburgh its first loss even though Cincinnati star Sean Kilpatrick had just nine points. If Kilpatrick plays well, Cincinnati can stay with just about any team in the conference despite returning just two starters from last season's squad.
Creighton's Doug McDermott
The Contenders: Villanova, Creighton, Marquette, Georgetown
Marquette was the coaches' preseason pick to win the conference, but the Golden Eagles got blown out at home by Ohio State and have lost five games to quality nonconference opponents.
Creighton still has Doug McDermott, but the depth of competition will be better than what the Bluejays faced while winning the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title last season.
Georgetown's 22-point loss at Kansas was not encouraging for the Hoyas, who were picked to finish second by the Big East coaches. The loss of Otto Porter seems to have hurt more than anticipated.
The Favorite: Villanova
The Wildcats are the only undefeated team in the Big East, and their neutral-court wins over Kansas and Iowa on consecutive nights are the most impressive victories in the conference.
Villanova has three players—JayVaughn Pinkston, James Bell and Darrun Hilliard—averaging better than 14 points a game, giving it the balance it needs. The Wildcats' Dec. 28 game at Syracuse may produce their first loss, but they remain the pick to win the Big East.
The Dark Horse: Butler
With coach Brad Sevens and most of their talent gone from last season's 27-9 squad, the Bulldogs were picked to finish ninth in their new conference this season. But Butler (9-2) nearly upset Oklahoma State, and it has the same knack for making opponents play poorly now that Brandon Miller is the coach.
Xavier is the other team that could pull some surprises in the Big East.
Arizona's Nick Johnson
The Contenders: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, Colorado
Oregon has benefited from the addition of transfers Joseph Young and Mike Moser, which has helped the Ducks become the top scoring team in the country. But having to go overtime to beat Ole Miss and BYU, the latter at home, suggests the Ducks may have trouble when things slow down in conference play.
UCLA has the talent to repeat as regular-season conference champion with Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson in the lineup. Plus, the Bruins do not have to face Arizona on the road this season. However, the Bruins lost their only two nonconference games against quality opponents, Missouri and Duke.
Colorado has established itself as a perennial threat under coach Tad Boyle, and its victory over Kansas indicates the Buffaloes have a shot again this season. Forward Spencer Dinwiddie is finally getting recognized for his talents, and Colorado does not have to face Oregon on the road this season.
Were it not for Arizona, Colorado would be the Pac-12 favorite.
The Favorite: Arizona
The unbeaten Wildcats are ranked No. 1 in the country, so they are the obvious Pac-12 favorites. But they were undefeated and ranked No. 3 at this stage last season and finished tied for second in the conference.
The difference this season is at point guard. Although freshman Aaron Gordon and guard Nick Johnson get most of the publicity, point guard T.J. McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne, provides the kind of solid floor leadership that was lacking last season. Victories over Duke on a neutral court and Michigan on the Wolverines' home court prove Arizona has what it takes to win the Pac-12 title.
The Dark Horse: Stanford
The Pac-12 is filled with dark-horse candidates in Utah, Cal and Arizona State, but Stanford is the most intriguing. Though the Cardinal lack depth and have never demonstrated the consistency needed to win a conference title, they have enough talent to beat anyone when things fall into place. Guard Chasson Randle and forward Dwight Powell make Stanford a threat, as its upset of Connecticut indicated.
Duke's Jabari Parker
The Contenders: Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina
Duke does not have to play Virginia on the road, and freshman Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood give the Blue Devils the offensive weapons to beat anyone in the ACC. However, they rely heavily on outside shooting and lack a consistent inside presence.
North Carolina is perplexing. The Tar Heels have wins over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky, and their talented frontcourt gives them a chance to overpower any team in the country. But their shortcomings on the perimeter (aside from Marcus Paige) and their lousy free-throw shooting make them vulnerable to an upset against virtually anyone.
Losses to Belmont, Alabama-Birmingham and Texas prove that.
The Favorite: Syracuse
The Orange are unbeaten and ranked No. 2. Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis has been better than expected. The same can be said for sophomore forward Jerami Grant, who is emerging as a star despite being a sixth man. The Syracuse zone may confound ACC opponents, and the Orange benefit from not having to face North Carolina in Chapel Hill this season.
The Dark Horse: Florida State
The Seminoles were picked to finish ninth in the ACC in the preseason media poll, but they have wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Massachusetts and barely lost to Florida (by one point on the road) and Michigan (in overtime).
Having Ian Miller healthy after he was plagued by foot problems last season has helped. But the biggest factor for Florida State is that it plays Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse only once each this season and does not face the latter two on the road.
Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart
The Contenders: Kansas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Baylor
Undefeated Iowa State has a star in Melvin Ejim and is ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll. It has significant wins over Michigan and Iowa. However, both those close victories came at home. Things will be different on the road.
Baylor has plenty of talent with players like Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin and Kenny Chery. Wins over Colorado and Kentucky on neutral floors proved the Bears are capable of beating anyone in the country. But they have a history of being inconsistent, and having to go overtime to beat Northwestern State indicates that may still be an issue.
Kansas has won or shared the conference title each of the past nine seasons, and its abundance of freshman talent should enable the Jayhawks to improve as the season progresses. All three of the Jayhawks' losses were to quality teams, but there is still a feeling this young team may struggle at times on the road.
The Favorite: Oklahoma State
We are picking Oklahoma State based on its outstanding backcourt of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown. The Cowboys lost to Memphis on a neutral court after they seemed to have the game under control at halftime. They also beat Memphis at home and knocked off Colorado in Las Vegas. The experience and talent of Smart and Brown should get them through the tough spots.
The Dark Horse: Texas
Texas' road victory over North Carolina suggests the Longhorns and coach Rick Barnes may be able to rebound after last season's 16-18 disaster. Texas was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 by the conference coaches.
Oklahoma is another team that could be a surprise.
Wisconsin's Sam Dekker
The Contenders: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa
Michigan State was No. 1 for a while after its victory over Kentucky, and the Spartans' experienced lineup that includes Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling is formidable. However, the Spartans have the toughest conference schedule of any of the contenders, and they did not look like a dominant team in the home loss to North Carolina.
Ohio State is undefeated and is the highest ranked Big Ten team at the moment at No. 3. Led by point guard Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes certainly have the defense and leadership to win a Big Ten title. But you wonder whether they have enough offensive weapons to win a conference as strong as the Big Ten.
Iowa suffered close losses to undefeated Villanova and to undefeated Iowa State on the road. The Hawkeyes are a threat against anyone, but they just seem to be a notch below the other three contenders in terms of talent and defense.
The Favorite: Wisconsin
The undefeated, No. 4-ranked Badgers may not be the most talented team in the conference, but they have a few things going for them. Sam Decker and 7-footer Frank Kaminsky give them a fearsome frontcourt. Also, Bo Ryan's swing offense and the strong defense Wisconsin plays have a habit of making opponents play poorly.
Plus, few teams in the country are tougher to beat on their home floor than the Badgers.
However, the reason Wisconsin is the pick to win the conference is the schedule. The Badgers play neither Michigan State nor Ohio State on the road, and that may be the difference in what figures to be a tight conference race.
The Dark Horse: Michigan
Four nonconference losses have relegated Michigan to dark-horse status after being ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP poll. But three of the Wolverines' losses were to ranked teams (Duke, Arizona and Iowa State), and injuries to center Mitch McGary have slowed their progress. If McGary is healthy for conference play, the Wolverines are capable of beating anyone.