Top-ranked Duke is going to win the ACC title.
Or at least that's what everyone assumes.
Kansas is the easy pick to capture its ninth straight Big 12 crown. Indiana is the best team in the country's best conference, and in the Pac-12, it's Arizona and then everyone else.
Yes, as league play begins all around the country, we think we've got it all figured out. This season more than ever, the teams picked to win the nation's top conferences are considered more than just favorites. They're heavy favorites.
But not so fast.
As with any season, there are players at other schools who are good enough to turn their teams into contenders in their respective leagues. They're the X factors, if you will, the guys influential enough to alter a conference race if they can find a way to improve on their inconsistent performances in nonconference play.
Keep an eye on the members of my All-X Factor team throughout the next two-plus months to see what type of impact they have on their schools' quests for a league title.
PG: Lorenzo Brown, North Carolina State
Brown entered the season touted as one of the top point guard prospects in the country, and rightfully so. He has great size at 6-foot-5 and was fresh off a sophomore campaign in which he averaged 13.7 points and 6.6 assists in his last six games while leading the Wolfpack to an unexpected berth in the Sweet 16.
Expectations were high for the Pack (ranked No. 6 in the preseason) and for Brown entering his junior year. And just like his team, he failed to respond early. Brown had nearly as many turnovers (22) as assists (26) in his first five games, which included a 20-point loss to Oklahoma State.
Things began to turn for Brown a few weeks later with a 10-assist effort against Michigan. Brown is averaging 12.4 points this season, and 14 points in his past five games. He had 15 points and nine assists in Monday's victory over UNC-Greensboro, providing one final boost of confidence as NC State prepares to challenge undefeated Duke for the ACC title.
"He's really elevated his game after those first few weeks," Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. "He's playing at a very high level right now."
SG: Brady Heslip, Baylor
No 3-point shooter ended the 2011-12 season on a higher note than Heslip, who made 24 of his final 41 attempts from beyond the arc (58.5 percent). On the season, Heslip shot 45.5 percent from long range.
This season, though, Heslip has been inconsistent -- and, as a result, so has Baylor, which beat Kentucky on the road but lost to Charleston and Northwestern at home. Heslip has made just 35.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Take away his 8-for-12 performance against St. John's, and that number falls to 29.5 percent.
The Canadian missed all but one of his 3s in last week's loss at Gonzaga. On one of the attempts, late in the game, he failed to draw iron despite being unguarded. If he had made the shot, the Bears would've been within one possession of Gonzaga.
"If Brady wasn't such a hard worker, I'd be worried about it," Bears coach Scott Drew told me Sunday night. "But he's putting in so much extra time to get it fixed. We all know it'll come. Every time he shoots it, we still expect it to go in."
Drew said Heslip, a junior, needs to enhance his all-around game if Baylor has any hope of unseating eight-time defending champion Kansas for the Big 12 title.
"He's a better passer and a better ball handler than he's shown," Drew said. "Because of what he did last year, he's not getting as many good looks. He's got to find a way to create for others."
SF: Mike Moser, UNLV
After transferring from UCLA, Moser blossomed into one of the nation's most versatile players as a sophomore last season, when he averaged 14 points and 10.5 rebounds for a team whose success re-energized the Runnin' Rebels' fan base. So no one was surprised when Moser's name popped up on a handful of preseason All-America teams.
For Moser, though, the last month has been filled with frustration. He dislocated his elbow in a victory over Cal on Dec. 9, when his right arm bent awkwardly under an opposing player as the two dived for a loose ball. Moser was expected to be out until mid-January, but he surprised people by returning for last week's loss at North Carolina, when he fouled out after scoring just three points in 12 minutes.
"I wasn't limited," Moser said after the game. "It was probably more mental than anything. I was playing a different role [against UNC], so trying to catch a rhythm was tough. This will just make the next game that much easier."
Thanks to national freshman of the year candidate Anthony Bennett (19.2 points, 8.8 rebounds), UNLV managed to go 4-1 without a healthy Moser. But Rebels coach Dave Rice knows Moser's presence -- both on the court and off -- will be vital during Mountain West play. With teams such as San Diego State, New Mexico, Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State, the MWC is regarded as one of the top leagues in the country, even better than power conferences such as the SEC and Pac-12.
"Mike Moser has been a double-double guy for his career," Rice said. "Just as important, he brings great energy and leadership to our team."
PF: Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota
The only thing more surprising than the Gophers' 12-1 record and No. 9 national ranking is that they've accomplished the feats without Mbakwe being 100 percent.
Well, at least that was the case until Monday, when Mbakwe -- who has had surgery on each of his knees -- erupted for 11 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in Minnesota's 76-63 victory over Michigan State in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Indiana may still be considered the class of the league, but at this point, no team looks as capable of challenging the Hoosiers as Minnesota. Especially if Mbakwe plays like he did Monday.
"He's coming back to the old Trevor we know," Gophers guard Joe Coleman told my ESPN.com colleague Myron Medcalf.
Mbakwe averaged 13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds in 2010-11 before an ACL tear forced him to miss all but seven games last season. For that reason, expectations for the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder were probably a bit unfair entering his senior campaign. Mbakwe was behind on his conditioning after sitting out a full season and, like anyone who has experienced a similar injury, his confidence in his knee was shaky.
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith treated Mbakwe gingerly in November and early December, usually limiting his action to less than 20 minutes a game. In his first eight contests, the senior scored in double figures only twice. But in his past four games, he's averaging 10.5 points. Mbakwe played 28 minutes versus Michigan State.
"He caused us a whole lot of problems, not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end as well," Michigan State's Keith Appling told Medcalf. "The past films we watched, he hasn't been this active."
That spelled doom for the Spartans -- and put the rest of the Big Ten on alert.
C: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
While most conferences have a clear-cut favorite, the SEC is a bit more difficult to predict. Florida and Missouri have been the top two teams thus far, but no one has forgotten about Kentucky -- and that's mainly because of Noel.
The No. 1-ranked prospect in the Class of 2012, Noel certainly hasn't been bad for the 8-4 Wildcats, whose only decent win is against Maryland. But he hasn't exactly been dominant, either. Just as his scouting report reads, Noel is not a prolific scorer (his 10.5 points come mostly on putbacks and dunks) and his free throw shooting (52.2 percent) leaves a lot to be desired. But that's the thing about Noel -- his upside is huge. It's obvious he's going to get a lot better. Heck, he already has, and so have the youthful Wildcats.
Noel, who averages 3.6 blocks, became one of college basketball's elite defenders the moment he stepped on the court for his first game. If he continues to improve offensively -- and if his teammates continue to progress -- Kentucky could have Final Four potential, depending on matchups.
One thing no one has ever questioned about Noel is his work ethic and drive.
"When stuff hits, when stuff gets intense, he has something inside of him you can't teach," UK coach John Calipari told me in October. "It's in there. I don't know where he finds it, but when he does, it's really something to watch."
Sixth Man: James Southerland, Syracuse
One year after Dion Waiters was Syracuse's second-leading scorer despite coming off the bench, the Orange appear to have the nation's top reserve once again. Southerland's 13.8 points per game are a team high, and he's shooting 43.1 percent from 3-point range. Not bad for a guy who has attempted more shots from beyond the arc than any player on the roster.
At 6-8, the agile Southerland presents a huge matchup problem for opposing defenders. And when Southerland gets hot, watch out. He averaged 22.5 points during a four-game stretch earlier this season, shooting 65.5 percent from the field during that span. A few weeks ago, he averaged 19 points and shot 59.4 percent during a three-game stretch.
Southerland has tapered off a bit in recent weeks, averaging just 6.7 points in his past three contests. He'll have to revert to his old form for Syracuse to make a run at Louisville for the Big East title.
Coach: Ben Howland, UCLA
A few weeks ago there were rumors that Howland may be fired before the end of the season. But after last week's overtime victory against then-No. 7 Missouri, it's all roses and unicorns in Westwood again.
At least for now.
Not many coaches in America will be as scrutinized as Howland during the next three months; he has fallen out of favor with the Bruins' brass after four straight lackluster seasons. After losing to Cal Poly and barely escaping Texas, Georgia and UC-Irvine, UCLA appears to be turning the corner.
Freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson are suddenly in better shape, the Wear twins are finally playing up to their potential, and troubled center Josh Smith is no longer dragging the Bruins down in practice since he decided to transfer. Other than Arizona, the Pac-12 is mediocre once again. That's why no one should be surprised if Howland wins some games -- and saves his job.
"No one has any patience anymore," a Pac-12 coach told me Monday afternoon. "The guy went to three straight Final Fours. He hasn't forgotten how to coach. He's had some bad breaks. People just need to take a deep breath and see how this plays out. I think he'll get it going again."
A: Redshirting -- Players who act insulted when their coach asks them to redshirt are making a mistake. Sitting out a season and working on your game is a positive thing, not a negative one. It will only help in the long run. Just ask Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk, who took advantage of the Bulldogs' strength and conditioning program to completely reshape his body while sitting out in 2011-12. Now he's an NBA prospect and one of the best big men in college basketball.
Kansas guard Ben McLemore may not have liked it when the NCAA made him sit out last season because of issues regarding his high school transcript, but it's obvious now that the situation was a huge benefit to McLemore, who was more than prepared once he took the court this season following a year spent enduring Bill Self's tough, rigorous practices. McLemore is a potential top-five NBA draft pick after this season. There's no way that would've been the case without that redshirt year to help him grow on and off the court.
B: Texas' defense -- The Longhorns have taken a lot of criticism for an 8-5 start that includes a double-digit loss to Division II Chaminade. But one thing for which they do deserve credit is their defense. Texas leads the nation in defensive field goal percentage, as opponents are shooting just 33.7 percent against Rick Barnes' squad. The number is even more impressive considering the Longhorns have played one of the toughest schedules in the nation thus far with games against North Carolina, Michigan State, Georgetown and UCLA.
C: Mike Rice, Rutgers -- Just on principle, it's tough to give a suspended coach a grade much higher than a C. But props to the Scarlet Knights' coach for owning up to his mistakes in an interview with ESPN.com's Andy Katz. Rutgers suspended Rice four games and fined him $50,000 for verbally abusing his players. He also reportedly threw basketballs at some of their heads in either his first or second season. "I've told my players for the last 21 years that you have to adjust to change and to develop, and now I have a chance to do that myself," Rice told Katz. "Whether it's right or wrong or indifferent, I have to get better." Rice is a darn good coach. Here's hoping he indeed spins this negative into a positive.
D: St. John's -- I expected a little more out of the Red Storm this season. Their 8-4 record isn't terrible, but losses to San Francisco and UNC-Asheville? C'mon now. Players such as D'Angelo Harrison (20.9 points) and JaKarr Sampson (14.7) are too talented to allow that to happen. St. John's opens Big East play Wednesday night against Villanova.
F: Purdue and Vanderbilt -- Last season, Purdue went 10-8 in the Big Ten and 22-13 overall. Vanderbilt was 10-6 in the SEC and 25-11 overall. Each team won a game in the NCAA tournament. Now they're among the worst teams in their respective leagues. The Boilermakers are 6-6, the Commodores 6-7. The graduation losses were severe, but the magnitude of the drop-off at each program is still shocking.
THIS WEEK'S POLL
Ranking the best point guard in college basketball, in order of total points, with number of first-place votes in parentheses (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Myron Medcalf, Dana O'Neil and myself).
1. Trey Burke, Michigan -- 47 (4)
2. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse -- 41
3. Phil Pressey, Missouri -- 40 (1)
4. Peyton Siva, Louisville -- 22
5. Pierre Jackson, Baylor -- 20
6. Aaron Craft, Ohio State -- 15
7. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State -- 13
8. Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's -- 12
9. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh -- 9
10. (tie) Andre Hollins, Minnesota; Lorenzo Brown, NC State -- 8
Also receiving votes: Keith Appling, Michigan State 7; Larry Drew II, UCLA 6; Jordan Hulls, Indiana 6; Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State 5; Archie Goodwin, Kentucky 3; Nate Wolters, South Dakota State 3; Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga 2; Jahii Carson, Arizona State 1; Mark Lyons, Arizona 1.
THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW
1. One team that I don't think is talked about nearly enough is Cincinnati, which has one of the country's top pure scorers in Sean Kilpatrick (18.6 ppg). Still, anyone who follows the 14th-ranked Bearcats closely knows that the biggest key to their 13-1 start is point guard Cashmere Wright.
A senior, Wright scored a team-high 18 points in Monday's 70-61 road win against Pittsburgh in the Big East opener for both teams. It was a mammoth victory for Cincinnati in a hostile environment, and it was yet another statement game for Wright, who has upped his scoring average from 10.9 points last season to 14.3 points this season.
"Last year I was more of a facilitator," Wright told me by phone after the game. "This year coach [Mick Cronin] told me I've got the green light to score. He just told me to be aggressive. It did wonders for my confidence, especially since I know deep down that I can score. It gives me the freedom to go out and be me."
Wright said the Bearcats still have loads of room to improve, adding that they're still searching for a consistent "offensive flow." If they find it, Wright is confident his squad can challenge Louisville for the Big East title.
"That's how we feel," he said. "We've beat Louisville two of the last three times, but people kind of look past us. We feel a little underappreciated, but that's what makes us go to practice each day and work so hard."
2. Wichita State's Gregg Marshall continues to show why he's one of the game's better coaches at any level. The Shockers -- who in November pulled off one of the season's best road wins at VCU -- absolutely annihilated a solid Northern Iowa squad Sunday at Koch Arena.
The most impressive thing about the 66-41 victory was that the Shockers pulled it off despite the absence of three starters, including leading scorer and rebounder Carl Hall, who is out with a broken thumb. Hall, who sustained the injury on Dec. 14, is scheduled to meet again with doctors on Jan. 14. He has missed the past three games.
"He'll be out two more weeks, minimum -- and it could be four," Marshall said by phone Tuesday from Des Moines, where his team is preparing for Wednesday's game at Drake. "We're trying to get through this as best as we can. So far, so good."
Starting guard Ron Baker, who has a stress fracture in his foot, is also out for at least another month. Guard Evan Wessel has a broken pinky and will need surgery at the end of the season. Marshall said Wessel, who hasn't played since Dec. 2, will likely redshirt if he can't play through the pain. With a handful of other Shockers hampered by "bone bruises and tweaked ankles," even Marshall was surprised by the score of Sunday's game.
"We just defended [Northern Iowa] really, really well," he said. "I could not believe the ease of that game. I don't think most of our games are going to be that easy. They're going to be more of a struggle, at least until we get Carl back. My hope is that we survive it well enough and get healthy again -- because we're pretty good when we're healthy."
Keep in mind that Wichita State lost four starters and its top five scorers from last year's Missouri Valley Conference championship squad, which is just another testament to the solid job Marshall is doing with the Shockers, who are 12-1, with the only loss coming at Tennessee.
3. Gonzaga coach Mark Few uttered some kind words to Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart after the Zags' 69-68 victory over the Cowboys in Stillwater on New Year's Eve.
"I watch every one of your games," Few told Smart as the two crossed paths on the way to the postgame interview room. "You're doing a great job. You know I love ya."
Few then patted Smart on the chest.
"I love you, too, coach," Smart responded.
Smart was on the U18 U.S. national team last summer, and Few was one of the assistants (Florida's Billy Donovan was the head coach). Few and Donovan said Smart was among the best leaders they've ever worked with. Smart, a freshman, had 23 points and six assists in Monday's loss.
"He's one of the all-time greats," Few said. "He's a warrior. He's a winner to the umpteenth level. I'd go into battle with that guy any time. Great things are going to happen for him. It's a no-brainer."
4. The main storyline coming out of Kansas' 89-57 thwacking of American on Saturday was the play of backup point guard Naadir Tharpe. The sophomore finished with 12 assists off the bench along with nine points. Even more important was that Tharpe didn't commit a turnover. In fact, he hasn't turned the ball over a single time in his past four games, including the recent victory over Ohio State in Columbus.
One of the biggest areas of concern for the Jayhawks entering the season was their depth on the perimeter. With Big 12 play approaching, Tharpe is stepping up at just the right time.
"It's been a process from the start," Tharpe said. "No one comes to Kansas and is automatically a superstar."
5. Memphis has won six of its seven games since going 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas in November.
"We weren't a finished or peaked product in the Bahamas," coach Josh Pastner told me Monday evening. "We saw our deficiencies and attacked them and made some tweaks. Now we've got to keep it going."
It's worth pointing out that the 9-3 Tigers suffered two of their three losses against No. 4 Louisville and No. 9 Minnesota, both by single digits. Their other setback was against a VCU squad that is good enough to make the Final Four.
The emergence of junior college guard Geron Johnson, an "energy guy" and pesky defender, has provided a huge boost for the Tigers. So has the improved play of third-year starter Joe Jackson, who struggled so badly in Nassau that Pastner could hardly keep him on the court.
The one guy who can't seem to find a groove is forward Adonis Thomas, the most talented player on the roster. Thomas is averaging just 7.4 points in his past five games and is shooting only 30.7 percent from the field during that span.
"He's going to break out of it," Pastner said. "He's getting open looks. He's just got to make some shots. He's just in a little bit of a funk. Early in the season, he was playing like a lottery pick.
"If he can get going, our team becomes very scary and dangerous."
Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis has halted his quest to stage a season-opening event next fall at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The idea was to have four games going on at the same time on different courts.
Hollis wanted to create excitement in the area in advance of the Final Four -- which the stadium will host in 2014 -- while entertaining approximately 30,000 troops from 12 nearby bases on Veterans Day weekend.
Hollis' heart is in the right place. His innovative spirit is refreshing. But I don't think this particular idea would've gone over very well.
Getting better: Boston College
What the heck has happened to: Alabama
Let him play football, too: (tie) Earnest Ross, Missouri; Ricardo Gathers, Baylor
All-Infirmary team: TCU
Tough to get a read on: Seton Hall
Don't sleep on: Iowa State
Darn good Canadian: Kelly Olynk, Gonzaga
Earning his paycheck: Kerry Keating, Santa Clara
Uh-Oh: Ben Braun, Rice
Give him a raise: Jim Crews, Saint Louis
Cousy Award Winner: Trey Burke, Michigan
Wooden Award Winner: Mason Plumlee, Duke
Final Four: Louisville, Duke, VCU, Gonzaga
Title game: Louisville over Duke
Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it.
Connecticut's All-Jim Calhoun team
Emeka Okafor: No. 2 overall draft pick in 2004 was National Defensive POY
Donyell Marshall: All-American in 1994; member of UConn's Hall of Honor
Kemba Walker: Won the Cousy Award -- and an NCAA title -- as a junior in 2011
Rip Hamilton: Named NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player in 1999
Ray Allen: First team All-American in 1996 and ranks fourth on Huskies' all-time scoring list
Khalid El-Amin: Averaged 16 points and 4.4 assists for 1999 NCAA champions
Ben Gordon: Averaged a team-high 20.5 points for the 2004 NCAA champions
Cliff Robinson: Led Huskies to 1988 NIT title; had his 00 jersey retired in 2007
Creighton 74 at Illinois State 66: I was high on the Redbirds until they lost to Indiana State on Sunday. Creighton, which shoots 50.8 percent from the field, is just too hot right now.
Arizona 66, vs. Colorado 57: The Buffaloes are good enough to hang with Arizona -- in Boulder. I don't think they have much of a chance on the road.
Ohio State 67, at Illinois 64: Which Illinois team will we see? The one that beat Gonzaga in Spokane or the one that narrowly escaped Gardner-Webb and Auburn? It may not matter against the Buckeyes.
Gonzaga 80, at Santa Clara 71: Santa Clara may be Gonzaga's biggest challenger in the WCC other than Saint Mary's. Kerry Keating's squad gave Duke a heck of a game in Durham before falling on Saturday. Gonzaga's size and depth, however, will be tough to overcome.
Marquette 53, vs. Georgetown 50: The Golden Eagles aren't as good as they've been in the past. But they still play as hard as any team in college basketball, and their fans make things very difficult on opposing teams.
Oklahoma State 59, at Kansas State 52: Both teams are very good defensively, but the Cowboys' overall talent should prevail. If Kansas State can get a good game out of enigmatic center Jordan Henriquez, it may have a chance.
Kansas 78, vs. Temple 67: The Owls got Kansas' attention by beating Syracuse on Dec. 22, so don't expect the Jayhawks to get caught sleeping.
Last week: 4-3
Season total: 14-7
Husk, Charleston, S.C.: A few days before my first-ever visit to Charleston last summer, I asked my Twitter followers for some food advice. More than 50 South Carolinians offered the same instructions: 1. Go to Husk. 2. Order the cheeseburger. To those fine folks, I'd like to take this opportunity to say thank you. Husk grinds Benton's hickory-smoked bacon into its locally sourced grass-fed beef to produce the best-tasting patty I've ever devoured. Served on a homemade bun with pickles and American cheese oozing from the sides, the burger at Husk catapulted to the very top of my all-time Top 10 list.
Charlie Gitto's, St. Louis: The birthplace of toasted ravioli never disappoints, and not just because of its famous appetizer. Tempted as I always am to order the Siciliano pizza or one of the many pasta dishes, I've become a creature of habit when it comes to the chicken parmigiana, which is breaded chicken breast topped with meat and cheese. Served on a bed of angel hair pasta, I never feel skimped on the portions. Judging by the constant crowds, others feel the same way.