Some unfamiliar faces emerging
Mid-majors offer some of the nation's most compelling league races
The ACC, Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-10 and SEC aren't the only leagues with interesting races. Here's a quick look at eight others worth tracking.
The two big dates on the calendar are Jan. 26, when Hartford visits Vermont, and Feb. 27, when Vermont makes the return trip in the regular-season finale. Hartford hosts the first three rounds of the conference tournament, but the championship game will be played on the home court of the strongest remaining seed. Both favorites enter conference play with top-20 RPI credentials but can't afford losses to anyone but each other in the league's pursuit of multiple NCAA tournament bids.
Gardner-Webb wasn't the preseason favorite, finishing third behind Liberty and High Point in the voting by league coaches. Nonetheless, it emerged as the buzz-worthy team entering the conference season and solidified that standing by beating Liberty at home over the weekend. It plays its first four conference games at home, culminating in a showdown with High Point, but then finishes with eight of 12 on the road.
Colonial Athletic Association
Given the likely scarcity of NCAA tournament bids and the abundance of teams capable of competing for the title, this is one of the more compelling leagues in the nation. As of Dec. 20, there were 18 players nationally averaging better than 20 points per game. Four play in the CAA: James Madison's Dawn Evans, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, Drexel's Gabriela Marginean and Georgia State's Danyiell McKeller.
Not coincidentally, those four teams have a combined 35-12 record. Drexel had the biggest share of those losses but defended its court in a fantastic opener against James Madison. And despite a 2-8 start against a typically rigorous schedule, Old Dominion showed it will be heard from with a 60-59 victory against Delaware.
Along with the Colonial and Mountain West, this could be a league with a crowded championship race and no guarantees of multiple NCAA bids to lessen the drama. No team has won back-to-back regular-season titles since the league shifted to a one-division format in 2001, but SMU won't be easily displaced with Brittany Gilliam leading the way.
Despite battling injuries, Tulane fared well in December and will be especially dangerous if it gets Brittany Lindsey back at 100 percent from a shoulder injury. East Carolina should be in the mix but needs to prove it won't repeat last season's road fade (1-7 away from home in league play).
Wisconsin-Green Bay will be the unofficial favorite every time out in conference play as it looks to complete a perfect regular season. The most likely spoiler is Butler, which quietly turned in a solid nonconference performance.
The regular-season title has been almost exclusively Bowling Green's domain, and despite some occasionally inconsistent play so far, the Falcons are poised to do it again. The strongest challenges might come from the conference's other division, particularly Toledo. The Rockets knocked off Dayton at home and New Mexico in Albuquerque already, and have a 6-2 record away from home.
The MVC is already through two rounds of regular-season play, save for Southern Illinois and Evansville. Preseason favorite Creighton already has two quality road wins, including a 69-44 demolition of fellow contender Illinois State.
But behind player-of-the-year favorite Casey Garrison (first in the conference in points and assists, third in rebounds for the entire season), Missouri State also opened with two victories, as did Wichita State. Drake, Illinois State and even Indiana State, which saw a 9-2 start unravel in back-to-back league losses at home, figure in the mix.
Familiar faces Middle Tennessee and Arkansas-Little Rock are among the teams off to good starts in conference play. But no team has made better use of the early league schedule than Denver, which is already 4-0. The bad news is the Pioneers have to go on the road to face the aforementioned preseason favorites. South Alabama also is off to a good start, and Western Kentucky remains a team capable of challenging.
Fresno State was the only WAC team to finish last season with a winning record out of conference. As league play begins this season, five teams are already locked into winning records out of conference. That's a recipe for a good race. Louisiana Tech is clearly the most tested of the group, but Boise State, with Jessica Van Hoogen healthy and scoring after missing last season, appears capable of reclaiming the top spot.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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