- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Championship race: Xavier was a nearly unanimous pick to win the league in the preseason, and the Musketeers did little to alter that perception in the early going. They're the worst of both worlds for opponents -- a stifling defensive team with an ability to put up points, especially with Katie Rutan, Tyesha Moss and Special Jennings proving they can provide consistent outside cover for all the talent inside. It doesn't hurt that Xavier also faces Temple, Richmond and Charlotte at home this season (in addition to a home meeting against Dayton, which it also plays a second time on the road).
But the A-10's top tier is as deep as at any point in recent memory. Dayton, Richmond, St. Bonaventure and Temple are all viable contenders, and Charlotte can't be counted out if it starts shooting the ball with any kind of consistency.
Team to watch Charlie Creme's pre-Christmas Bracketology update put four Atlantic 10 teams in the projected field for the NCAA tournament , but St. Bonaventure might prove to be the bellwether for the league. January is a tough month for the Bonnies, with a home game against Xavier and road trips to Dayton and Temple. A win or two in those games, in addition to wins against Marist and Bowling Green out of conference, will start to solidify an at-large profile.
Player to watch: LaKeisha Eaddy doesn't rank among her team's leading scorers, let alone the conference's leading scorers, but there might not be anyone in the league with as firm a grip on her team's fate as the Temple point guard. When she's at her very best -- distributing, scoring and spearheading the defense -- Temple has the personnel to play with anyone outside the Connecticut class. But when an inconsistent shot stops falling or she starts to look miscast at point, the Owls also follow her lead.
Championship race: After previewing the Big East, Pac-10 and Atlantic 10, it's nice to come to a league that doesn't have a prohibitive favorite. TCU enters conference play with the most impressive résumé, including a neutral-site win against Kansas and a home victory against Texas A&M. But if the Horned Frogs are the favorites, and that's not clear even if they lead in votes in both national polls, it's by a slight margin. San Diego State, picked to win the league before the season, missed opportunities early to raise its national profile but closed December with wins over Wake Forest and Auburn.
And the league is so competitive -- even a team such as Colorado State might not be an automatic win -- that the champion might well lose four or five games. In that scenario, it would hardly be a shock to see BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the thick of things.
Team to watch: If there's a team other than TCU that might be able to call on its early schedule come time for NCAA tournament at-large consideration, it's New Mexico. Leaving the comfort of Albuquerque, the Lobos beat Arizona in Tucson and have reaped the RPI benefits of a schedule that also included Oklahoma State, Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M (all losses). Senior Amy Beggin has taken 130 shots from the floor, attempted 52 free throws and collected 40 assists -- all while turning over the ball just 15 times in 424 minutes on the court. But she also has plenty of support from double-digit scorers Lauren Taylor, Sara Halasz and Amanda Best.
Player to watch: Helena Sverrisdottir posted a triple-double, just the second in program history, in TCU's final game before conference play. And Mountain West teams know as well as any just how versatile the Icelandic import is. Two seasons ago, Sverrisdottir announced her presence with a strong conference performance. Last season, her shooting suffered a little in league play. But points are always only part of the equation for one of the most diversified players in the game.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
19dBonnie D. Ford