Commentary

Second season starting

Updated: December 29, 2008, 5:39 PM ET
By Dick Vitale | ESPN.com

We are starting the second phase of the college basketball season. I break down college basketball into four quarters -- the pre-conference schedule, league play, conference tournament action and then March Madness, the greatest three weeks in all of sports. The final quarter is for the big prize, the national championship and the right to cut down the nets in Detroit.

In the first part of the season, there were a number of surprises and disappointments. Now teams will be tested as we find out which ones are contenders and which are pretenders.

Now we have the intensity of conference play night in and night out. To get the opportunity to compete in that fourth phase, teams have to perform well in league play.

Some of the early surprises:

• Who would have thought that Clemson would be this strong. Oliver Purnell lost a lot of talent from last year's team, including James Mays and Cliff Hammonds. This season, The Tigers earned road wins over Illinois and Miami-Florida. Clemson blew out a good Hurricanes squad that has a road win at Kentucky.

• If you want to look at a conference that has been a surprise, check out the Big Ten. The overall play of schools like Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State (despite the recent loss to West Virginia) and Northwestern, has been impressive. There have been plenty of positive wins for the league.

• Syracuse was picked eighth in the Big East preseason coaches poll. A look at the Orange resume shows big Ws away from the Carrier Dome -- over Florida, Kansas (at the CBE event in Kansas City, Missouri) and at Memphis. Syracuse missed the big dance the last two seasons, but Jonny Flynn is leading the team back into the tourney picture.

• Illinois State was picked third in the preseason Missouri Valley Conference poll. Tim Jankovich's team raced off to a great start; can it keep it going against the likes of Creighton as league play rolls on?

• Oklahoma has been brilliant. I know they were the favorite in the Big 12 and expected to have a good season but I feel the Sooners have gone beyond with their play, including the big win at Madison Square Garden over Purdue.

There have been a number of teams that have been up-and-down. They have not been at the level anticipated prior to the season. They have coaches that have a way of making things happen when it is for real.

• Let's start with Louisville and Michigan State. Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo will be the first to tell you that their clubs have not played up to their potential overall. The Spartans can point out the positive win over Texas down in Houston, and in fairness to Michigan State, this is a program that plays a brutal non-conference schedule. There was also the absence of Goran Suton up front, and his presence on the glass is a factor. He is back and Michigan State will compete for the Big Ten title. The Cardinals have struggled shooting the basketball in key moments. The loss to Western Kentucky was a major shock-city setback. Something tells me the future Hall of Famer Pitino will find a way to rectify their dilemma. When it is all said and done, the Cardinals will be one of the upper-echelon teams in the best conference in the land.

• Gonzaga started strong but has been up-and-down lately. I felt the Zags would be a dominant force, and the loss to No. 2 Connecticut in overtime out in Seattle was a tough one. Then came the loss to Portland State, a favorite in the Big Sky but a stunner any way you look at it. I believe they will have another great season in the WCC.

• Davidson has had a number of great moments, but then came the 21-0 deficit against Purdue. Bob McKillop's team should take charge in the Southern Conference.

• In the SEC, Kentucky has had some flashes of brilliance with the dynamic duo of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson. Then again, the loss to VMI and a few closer than anticipated calls (battling Florida Atlantic, for example) has Billy Gillispie shaking his head at times. I believe the Wildcats will make a strong showing in phase two of the campaign.

League play will show us which teams are going to make some noise come tournament time, and which clubs are not what they displayed in non-conference action.

Dick Vitale

College Basketball analyst
Dick Vitale, college basketball's top analyst and ambassador, joined ESPN during the 1979-80 season. His thorough knowledge of the game is brought forth in an enthusiastic, passionate style. Vitale also contributes columns to ESPN.com.