Commentary

Now on to the meat of the season

Many questions to be answered during conference play

Originally Published: January 3, 2011
By Charlie Creme | Special to ESPN.com

The college basketball season is really divided into thirds. The nonconference season played largely during the pre-holiday, first-semester period. Then it's conference play that eats up the bulk of the winter and really establishes a season's direction and personality.

It also sets up the really fun part -- the postseason -- which makes up the final third.

So … one down, two to go -- which makes this a good time to hit the ground running with Bracketology, a full evaluation of where the season sits after the nonconference portion of the year and what that could mean for the next step.

Some answers have already been provided.

But in some cases, the first two months just created more questions.

What we know

Season back on: Now that Connecticut has lost, the sense that the entire year was headed to a predetermined outcome is gone. But let's face it: The idea that the Huskies would have another undefeated championship run was only a recent thought after they embarked on a tear that included annihilations of tournament-quality clubs like LSU, Marquette, Ohio State and Florida State.

The prevailing thought prior to the season was that UConn would lose, the streak would end, and whether the Huskies were the favorite, 2010-11 would be a season of some mystery. However, getting carried away on parity would be a mistake. Connecticut should still be considered the measuring stick and the lists of teams that can also win the national championship is not long. Clearly, Stanford can. Baylor, too. Duke's viability might become more apparent on the last day of January, when the Blue Devils visit Storrs, Conn. Texas A&M and Xavier each lost at Duke and appear to be just a notch below. In other words, don't get high hopes that the group of teams that gets to Indianapolis will look much different from last spring's Final Four.

[+] EnlargeWhitney Hand
AP Photo/Mike FuentesWhitney Hand missed 45 Oklahoma games as she battled back from an ACL injury last season. But the guard returned in a Jan. 2 loss to TCU.

No. 1 seeds: With that in mind, the pool for the four No. 1 seeds is down to six. Add Stanford and Texas A&M to the group that's already there now (Baylor, Connecticut, Duke and Tennessee). Xavier took itself out of the mix with its disappearing act against the Cardinal last week, and the lack of enough big games remaining on the schedule hurts the Musketeers dearly. While Tennessee is playing Kentucky and Baylor battles the Aggies and Iowa State, Xavier is playing UMass and Rhode Island.

Stanford is really like a No. 1A, but the Cardinal's shot at working back into the true top four will likely depend less on what they do and more about what happens ahead of them.

Nothing mountainous about the MWC: At this time last year, this space included an observation that the Mountain West schools were not seizing an opportunity to become bigger players in West Coast basketball with the Pac-10 in a down year. Now, the situation has gotten worse. Take a look at the bracket this week. One MWC team is in (really only because there has to be one) and it's Wyoming as a No. 13 seed. That's low-major territory.

TCU has a couple of nice wins, including a really good one Sunday against Oklahoma, and ultimately is the big favorite to emerge, but the Horned Frogs are still just 8-6. San Diego State should be better and Utah's program (before it heads to the once again much more difficult Pac-10) has fallen off, leaving this looking much like a one-bid league. And with the defections of the Utes, TCU and BYU, that's what the future looks like as well.

Mid-majors missing: Forget the notion that the women's game suffers in the public eye because of a lack of parity at the top. The middle is also suffering a balance problem. The trend of the last couple of seasons is a lack of mid-major depth, allowing for few at-large bids outside the BCS conferences. Sure, the Green Bays and Bowling Greens are doing a good job waving the flag for those leagues, but those schools are in short supply.

Right now, the Phoenix and Falcons would be worthy of at-large bids were they not their league's automatic qualifiers, but that's just it: Those two, plus Marist and Gonzaga, to name a few, are so dominant inside their conferences that no one else establishes itself as even a remotely good candidate.

The Atlantic 10 continues to do its part (although this bracket puts just two A-10 teams in the field as Dayton and Temple have disappointed), and Middle Tennessee comes in as an at-large, but that's it. No one in the ultra-competitive, but so-far uninspiring CAA is worthy (Drexel perhaps hanging by a thread). Houston of Conference USA appeared to be in position, but has taken some steps backward. Even the Zags, who have been a mainstay of mid-major prowess, would not be in the field as an at-large selection today. November and December are the time of year for the mid-majors to ring their bell loudly, grab a big win or two, and put up a gaudy record. For the third straight year that noise just wasn't loud enough.

What we don't know

Crisis in Columbus: At first glance, Ohio State losing four times in the last month is shocking. In fact, the Buckeyes' only wins since Dec. 5 are over USC Upstate and Bethune Cookman. Not exactly résumé-building stuff. Did losing at Syracuse, where the Buckeyes were outrebounded 42-29 by a much smaller team, shock the system? Did the 31-point loss to UConn kill their confidence? How to explain Michigan racing to a 24-4 lead against them?

[+] EnlargeOhio State
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireSamantha Prahalis and Ohio State are 9-4, and lost three straight before a Jan. 2 win.

Upon closer examination, perhaps finding where Ohio State is falling short isn't too difficult. This group's commitment to defense and a full 40 minutes of effort and concentration has been severely lacking. And these struggles seem to open up a Big Ten race beyond simply how many teams can the league send to the tournament. A championship is now more of a reality in places like East Lansing and Iowa City. Then again, the Hawkeyes opened conference play 0-2. In other words, the Big Ten remains a huge unknown.

Health: Whitney Hand returned to Oklahoma after more than 400 days away from basketball because of knee surgeries, and Purdue welcomed Drey Mingo back to the starting lineup just a month and a half after that terrifying bout of acute spinal meningitis. No one knows how well either will ultimately hold up, but both are terrific stories. Both the Sooners and Boilermakers will have better postseason potential because of the returns of Hand and Mingo.

SEC? ACC? The first two months did little to really build on the preseason predictions in the SEC and ACC. Tennessee and Duke were the favorites now and still are, but no one else seems to separate themselves in any noticeable way. For instance, how good is LSU? Good enough to win at UCLA, but not good enough to beat Tulane or Ohio State at home? Was Arkansas' 12-0 start with wins over MTSU and Oklahoma a sign of a huge leap forward, or did Sunday's loss at Florida indicate that the jury is still out?

North Carolina is unbeaten, but other than beating Iowa, how meaningful are the wins? Confidence might be exactly what the Tar Heels needed this fall after a 12-loss season with a first-round exit. Maryland looks much improved, but what to make of Miami and Boston College? Now they get to play each other to make it easier to find out.

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Women's College Basketball
Charlie Creme projects the women's NCAA Tournament bracket for ESPN.com.