- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Favorite in the Missouri Valley: Preseason favorite Northern Iowa returned all five starters and has knocked off Boston College, Iowa State, Iowa and Siena. It's still the Panthers' league to lose.
Favorite in the WCC: Gonzaga looked awful against Duke in New York but won the Maui Invitational with a victory over Cincinnati, and the Zags played tough in a 75-71 loss at Michigan State. Gonzaga is still the top team in the conference.
Favorite in Conference USA: UTEP was my pick in the preseason, and I'm sticking with the Miners. Derrick Caracter is now eligible, and the Miners nearly knocked off Ole Miss; then, they followed through with a big-time win over Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.
Favorite in the Horizon: Butler has played a brutal schedule so far and the Bulldogs have taken their lumps, losing to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown and UAB (but there have been home wins over Ohio State and Xavier). Butler will be in the Big Dance as the Horizon's automatic qualifier or as an at-large.
Favorite in the Ivy: Harvard has been impressive, but Cornell has been impressive of late, winning at Alabama, at UMass and at St. John's. The only two losses for the Big Red were at home to Seton Hall and at Syracuse -- not bad for an Ivy school.
Most Surprising Teams:
Missouri State in the Valley: The Bears started out 10-0 before losing at Arkansas in overtime on Tuesday. Missouri State has to be careful not to fall into the same trap fellow league member Illinois State fell into last season. The Redbirds started 14-0, but ended up missing the NCAA tournament.
William & Mary in the Colonial: After an 0-2 start (close losses at UConn and at Harvard), the Tribe has strung together eight straight victories, including a home win over Richmond, a road win at Wake Forest and a conference-opening win over perennial league power VCU.
Saint Mary's in the WCC: The Gaels don't have that signature win, outside of crushing San Diego State at home. But despite all the talent lost from last season's team, Saint Mary's is off to a 10-1 start with wins at Oregon and at Utah State, not exactly easy places to play. SMC's only loss was a two-point heartbreaker to Vandy.
UAB in C-USA: The Blazers were supposed to be rebuilding, but somebody forgot to tell them. Mike Davis' team is a red-hot 11-1 and already has double-digit victories over Cincinnati and Butler. UAB has also beaten Georgia and the pesky duo of Green Bay (beat Wisconsin) and South Alabama (beat Florida). Elijah Millsap, Paul Millsap's younger brother, is certainly in the running for league MVP.
Harvard in the Ivy: The Crimson were supposed to be improved, but I'm not sure anyone projected the Crimson to nearly beat Connecticut and then win at Boston College for the second season in a row. The overtime win over William & Mary -- won on a buzzer-beater by Jeremy Lin -- is also looking better by the day.
Performances of note: Omar Samhan, Saint Mary's and Jeremy Lin, Harvard
Samhan had quite a night in snapping Utah State's 37-game home-court winning streak on Dec. 5. He scored 22 points on 10-of-18 shooting and grabbed 17 boards. As for Lin, he followed up a 30-point game at Connecticut with a 25-point, 4-assist performance in a seven-point win at BC.
Biggest disappointments: Siena and Creighton
Creighton was supposed to challenge Northern Iowa for the Valley title -- and still might -- but won't be an at-large squad after going 0-3 at the Old Spice Classic, losing at George Mason and failing to hold a lead at New Mexico. The Bluejays don't have a bad loss but also don't have a win they can scream about yet, outside of a rivalry win over nearby Nebraska.
Siena can still win the MAAC and fulfill its goals, but the Saints were supposed to be better than they've been. Fran McCaffery's team missed out in each of its nonconference chances, losing at Temple, to St. John's in Philadelphia, at Georgia Tech and at Northern Iowa. There isn't a bad loss in that group, but like Creighton, Siena doesn't have a signature win to tout.
Reason to worry: Tulsa and Memphis
Tulsa does have a significant win over Oklahoma State, but losses at Missouri State and to Nebraska leave the Golden Hurricane a bit short on the résumé going into conference play. Tulsa probably needs to finish no lower than second to have a chance. Winning at Duke wouldn't hurt, either.
Memphis lost to Kansas and UMass in close games that came down to the final possession, and still has plenty of chances for résumé wins in home games against Tennessee and Gonzaga and a trip to Syracuse. The Tigers may win the league or the conference tournament (which is in Tulsa), but getting at least one significant nonconference win would help the NCAA profile.
Sleeper team to watch: Wichita State
The Shockers didn't have guard Clevin Hannah against Pitt in Kansas City and that clearly hurt in their one loss this season. Wichita State knocked off previously unbeaten Texas Tech at home and also owns decent wins over Iowa, TCU and Cleveland State, but the competition hasn't been stiff during an 11-1 start. But don't discount it. This team has confidence now and could challenge UNI and others for the Missouri Valley title.
Mystery team: Xavier
The Musketeers lost to Butler in the final second after beating Cincinnati. Xavier has the talent to make a run at a bid. The talent is there to win the league, too. But the Musketeers are still trying to find their consistent groove and suffered losses to rebuilding Marquette and Baylor in Orlando. My prediction is they will find that groove and find a way to earn a tournament berth.
Who's going dancing? Butler, if it doesn't win the Horizon, and Gonzaga, if it doesn't win the WCC. Northern Iowa, and I'm going to take a flyer here and say Wichita State gets the second bid out of the Missouri Valley. UTEP and Memphis find a way to get multiple bids out of Conference USA, with UAB right on the bubble and Tulsa hanging around, as well.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.