Originally Published: December 30, 2012

Dishing out conference-play superlatives

Robbi Pickeral

"Best Dancer?"

"Top Shining Moment?"

"Most Likely To Return For Another Try?"

Those distinctions won't be awarded (or debated) until April, when the NCAA tournament has concluded and a new national champion has been crowned.

But as college basketball officially prepares to graduate from nonconference play this week -- flipping its tassel from a bunch of strange nonleague blowouts to some familiar intraleague rivalries -- it seems like a good time to pause for a few midseason superlatives, based on what we've witnessed in these first two months of warm-up games and what we expect the rest of the (frenetic? fantastic?) season.

Most Likely to Disappoint? Biggest Overachiever? Top Choice to Burst the Bubble? Feel free to weigh in. But here are our choices for some of the top conferences:

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Kevin Jairaj/US PresswirePeyton Siva and Louisville remain one of the top Final Four favorites.

Most likely to succeed

The pick: Big Ten and Big East (tie)

As of the beginning of last week, these leagues had a stranglehold on the rankings, making up six of the top 10 (Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State, Louisville, Cincinnati, Syracuse) in the Associated Press Top 25 -- and with two more teams (Minnesota, Illinois) ranked Nos. 11 and 12.

The big question: Which -- and how many -- of these teams will make the Final Four?

Most unpredictable

The pick: Pac-12

Although only one team is currently ranked in the Top 25 -- No. 3 Arizona -- it's hard to know what you're going to get from teams 2 through 12, because they're all certainly capable of beating each other on any given night.

Superfreshman Shabazz Muhammad has been coming on strong of late, averaging 25 points over his past four games (including 27 during UCLA's Friday win over No. 7 Missouri). Washington had won four straight before losing to UConn on Saturday. And despite being only 4-8, USC (which has lost to four currently ranked teams) has the talent to wrestle with anyone in the league.

Who's the best? The worst? Expect the unexpected.

Best party crasher

The pick: Atlantic 10

Credit first-year member Butler for this distinction. Not only did the Bulldogs expose then-ranked (and now unranked) North Carolina in the Maui Invitational, they also toppled top-ranked Indiana on a last-second shot by a walk-on.

And who knows who might crash whose shindig from game to game come conference play? Saint Joseph's, which currently stands at 6-4, was picked to win the league. But VCU, Saint Louis, Temple and the Bulldogs are among those who have distinguished themselves so far. Heck, even Charlotte (predicted to finish 12th) stands at 11-2.

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AP Photo/Julie JacobsonWith Anthony Bennett, UNLV can do some damage in March.

Wallflower most likely to crash the NCAA tournament party

The pick: Mountain West

New Mexico ... San Diego State ... UNLV ... Wyoming ... Colorado State ... even Boise State?

More than half of the teams in this league could very well earn NCAA berths. How far will they go in March?

Most shallow

The pick: SEC

Three good teams. Several question marks. And not much left after that.

(Can you figure out which is which is which?)

Most likely to be famous (in March)

The pick: The Patriot League race

Lehigh's one-point loss to Bryant on Saturday was a surprise, but both the Mountain Hawks and Bucknell have looked like they could be legitimate sleepers in March. Why?

Because they have legitimate stars: senior guard C.J. McCollum for Lehigh, senior forward Mike Muscala for the Bison. Small conference, big competition.

Not to be forgotten

The pick: Horizon League

Even without Butler, this conference is managing to make some waves. On Saturday, Loyola snapped DePaul's seven-game win streak, and Valparaiso picked up a really nice win at Murray State.

UIC won at Northwestern earlier, Detroit has Ray McCallum, and even Green Bay and Milwaukee, with the two worst records in the conference, have nice wins over Marquette and Davidson. League play should be fun.

Prom king (again)

The pick: Kansas, Big 12

Is there anyone to waylay the Jayhawks en route to their ninth straight conference crown?

I think we all know the answer to that.

Most eyebrow raising

The pick: ACC

On a positive note, still-undefeated and top-ranked Duke has been impressive, beating three top-five teams in a span of 16 days. And still-unranked Maryland hasn't lost since its season opener against Kentucky.

But the rest of the league has been somewhat depressive, what with formerly ranked Florida State and UNC falling all the way out of the Top 25, and preseason top-10 NC State tumbling to the 20s (although the Wolfpack, winner of six straight, have looked a lot more impressive of late). Even Virginia Tech, the surprise team of the league with a 7-0 start, has succumbed to reality, losing four of its past six.

What will league play bring? We shall see.

Brett Edgerton and Jason King contributed to this report. Before Monday's league openers, make sure to read Dana O'Neil's Big East primer and Eamonn Brennan's Big Ten primer.

The best from Saturday's games

By Jason King

Here are a few things that caught my attention while watching games on Saturday:

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Alex Trautwig/Getty ImagesTyler Haws brought back the type of scoring that's been missing at BYU since Jimmer Fredette.

1. Saturday's top performance was turned in by BYU's Tyler Haws, who did his best Jimmer Fredette impersonation by scoring 42 points in the Cougars' 97-71 victory over Virginia Tech in Salt Lake City. Haws had 29 points in the first half, when he went 9-of-13 from the field and connected on six of eight 3-point attempts. BYU's defense also deserves praise for holding Hokies guard Erick Green to 12 points on 4-of-17 shooting. Green entered the game averaging 25.4 points for a Virginia Tech squad (9-4) which has fizzled after a 7-0 start that included a victory against Oklahoma State.

2. I don't understand the people who say Duke has hit its ceiling and that the Blue Devils aren't going to get any better. Um, why not? Rasheed Sulaimon is a freshman who has played 12 college basketball games. Sophomore Quinn Cook, who saw limited action last season, is seven weeks deep into his first season as the Blue Devils' point guard.

Why would anyone think those players wouldn't improve as the season progresses? With Cook and Sulaimon trending upward and with Mason Plumlee increasing his lead in the national player of the year race -- he had 22 points, 13 boards and 5 assists in Saturday's 90-77 win over Santa Clara -- I think Duke will continue to get better. And that's scary.

3. I'm sure most people would agree with me, so this may not be a very bold statement, but if the season ended today, I'd vote Louisville's Russ Smith as a first-team All-American. And I wouldn't hesitate. Smith had 21 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals in Saturday's 80-77 victory over Kentucky and was especially huge down the stretch. If Smith continues to perform at a high level -- and there's no reason to believe he won't -- I think Louisville will be the team to beat in March and April.

Chane Behanan is playing like a beast, Gorgui Dieng will be back in rhythm within a week or two, Wayne Blackshear will continue to improve and, defensively, the Cardinals will be as good as any team around. Throw in a Hall of Fame coach on the sideline and one of America's best floor leaders (Peyton Siva) at point guard and it's hard to be anything but optimistic about Louisville's future.

4. Kentucky showed some encouraging signs in Saturday's loss, mainly at the point guard spot, where Ryan Harrow finished with 17 points on 8-of-15 shooting. He did not commit a turnover in 39 minutes. But he also had just three assists. Even when Harrow is playing well, it's clear that this UK team doesn't have much of a shot to repeat as NCAA champions. Even winning an SEC title will be a challenge.

The Wildcats don't have a true scorer in the post, they lack an elite level point guard, have zero depth in the backcourt and don't have a leader. That doesn't mean this team can't be very, very good. I just don't expect to see Kentucky in Atlanta come March. Enjoy it while you can, Big Blue haters. The Cats won't be down for long.

5. Nice win for North Carolina against UNLV, but this Tar Heels team still looks soft to me, both physically and mentally. Maybe I'm still having trouble shaking the memories of that Texas loss when the Longhorns made UNC -- particularly its guards -- look foolish.

To read the full post on observations from the final Saturday of 2012, click here.


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