The early tournaments have come and gone. The intriguing pre-conference matchups have played out.
With play in the Big Six leagues getting under way, now's a good time to look at the players who have jump-started their teams heading into the heart of their schedules.
We'll call them our All-Igniter Team, with one selection from each of the power conferences.
Jon Scheyer, Duke – Wake Forest's Al-Farouq Aminu, North Carolina's Ed Davis and Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors may be the top NBA prospects, but none of them are playing as well as Duke's senior guard. Scheyer is averaging a team-high 18.2 points and 5.9 assists for the Blue Devils, who at 9-1 are playing better than anyone in the ACC. And it's not as if Scheyer has padded his stats against an easy non-conference schedule. Duke has played Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Arizona State and St. John's. Scheyer averaged 16 points in those five games and had a career-high 36 against Gardner-Webb. Scheyer's leadership has been vital for a squad that lost its best player, Gerald Henderson, to the NBA draft.
Wesley Johnson is a breakout performer.
(Kevin Rivoli/AP Photo)
Wesley Johnson, Syracuse – The biggest surprise in college basketball this season has been Syracuse. The biggest reason for the Orange's success has been Johnson, a former Iowa State star who sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. Johnson is averaging 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds, but his biggest attribute has been his versatility. One minute he's swishing a 3-pointer, the next he's slashing into the lane for a pull-up jumper or a dunk. Johnson's most impressive performance was a 25-point effort in an 87-71 victory over North Carolina.
John Shurna, Northwestern – Most people gave up on the Wildcats when star player Kevin Coble suffered a season-ending injury. Shurna refused to raise the white flag and Northwestern has legitimate NCAA tournament hopes after winning 10 of its first 11 games. Shurna is averaging 15.9 points and 7.2 rebounds for a Wildcats team that owns victories over Notre Dame, Iowa State, Stanford and North Carolina State. He's surpassed the 20-point barrier four times, including a 29-point outing against Central Connecticut State on Tuesday. If Shurna keeps this up, Northwestern could be in the Big Dance for the first time in school history.
Damion James, Texas – The Longhorns senior forward is not regretting his decision to pull out of the NBA draft and return to school. James was always a strong player, but this season he's been on a different level. James is averaging 17 points and 10.8 rebounds for the second-ranked and undefeated Longhorns. He scored 25 and 23 points in recent victories over North Carolina and Michigan State, respectively. James' biggest attribute, however, is his leadership. Texas' younger players have benefitted from his presence and knowledge. If the season ended today he'd be a first team All-American.
Klay Thompson, Washington State – A sophomore, Thompson has been a bright spot in what's been a down year for the conference. The son of former NBA standout Mychal Thompson is averaging 25 points and has made 44.6 percent of his 3-point attempts. Thompson had 22 and 26 points, respectively, against Kansas State and LSU. But neither of those performances rivaled his 43-point effort in a win over San Diego. Thompson is the main reason the Cougars are off to a 10-2 start.
Patrick Patterson, Kentucky – It'd be easy to write about John Wall here, considering he's the likely national player of the year. But Patterson, the standout forward who passed on the NBA draft, has provided veteran leadership for the young Wildcats. Patterson is averaging 17.1 points, nine rebounds and has scored in double figures in all but one game. He's shooting 62.5 percent from the field and has added a face-up game to his skill set, making him a likely first-round pick in next summer's draft.
Now, on to this week's conference power rankings. Last week's rank in parenthesis.
Dwayne Collins is a versatile Hurricane.
(Alan Diaz/AP Photo)
1. Duke (9-1) – The Blue Devils are playing better than North Carolina. Right now. (2)
2. North Carolina (9-3) – The supposed "nation's best frontcourt" got outworked in Saturday's loss to Texas. (1)
3. Clemson (11-2) – The Tigers, winners of five straight, open ACC play Jan. 3 at Duke. (4)
4. Florida State (11-2) – Three of the Seminoles' last four wins came by single digits. (6)
5. Miami (12-1) – Dwayne Collins leads the Hurricanes in points (12.9) and rebounds (8.9). (5)
6. Georgia Tech (9-2) – Sunday's home loss to Florida State was a major setback. (3)
7. Wake Forest (8-2) – Ishmael Smith is averaging 5.3 assists and two steals. (7)
8. Maryland (7-3) – Forward Dino Gregory is back after an eight-game suspension. (8)
9. Virginia Tech (10-1) – The Hokies haven't lost since a Nov. 27 setback at Temple. (10)
10. North Carolina State (8-3) – Sidney Lowe is looking for more physical play from his frontcourt. (9)
11. Boston College (8-4) – Al Skinner has been critical of the Eagles' guards. (11)
12. Virginia (6-4) – Guard Sylven Landesberg has reached double figures in every game this season. (12)
Florida State – The Seminoles have won five in a row since a Dec. 2 loss to Ohio State. With two seemingly easy opponents (Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Alabama A&M) next on the schedule, it appears Florida State will take a 13-2 record into its Jan. 10 showdown against Maryland. Solomon Alabi averages 12.7 points and 7.2 rebounds for Leonard Hamilton's squad, but the play of Derwin Kitchen and Chris Singleton shouldn't be overlooked.
North Carolina – The Tar Heels have lost three games – but you have to consider who beat them. Syracuse, Kentucky and Texas will all contend for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, and North Carolina had a chance to beat Kentucky and Texas until the very end. This is still an extremely talented team that will benefit from its tough schedule in March.
THREE TO WATCH
Long Beach State at Duke – The 49ers hung with Kentucky until the game's waning minutes on Wednesday. Could they do the same in Durham? Wait and see.
William and Mary at Maryland – Included in the Tribe's eight-game win streak is a victory over Wake Forest. Don't be surprised if the Terrapins struggle.
South Carolina at Boston College – Two evenly matched, middle-of-the-pack teams squaring off in a non-conference game. Expect a close one.
Brandon Triche is growing up fast.
(Kevin Rivoli/AP Photo)
1. Syracuse (12-0) – Freshman point guard Brandon Triche had 27 points against Oakland on Tuesday. (1)
2. West Virginia (9-0) – A two-point win over Cleveland State? (2)
3. Villanova (11-1) – Reggie Redding scored 15 points in his season debut against Fordham on Saturday. (4)
4. Connecticut (8-2) – Ater Majok has scored a combined six points in two games since becoming eligible. (3)
5. Georgetown (9-1) – It's not like anyone thought the Hoyas were going to go undefeated. But Old Dominion? Wow. (5)
6. Seton Hall (9-1) – In the next five days the Pirates play No. 6 West Virginia and No. 5 Syracuse. (7)
7. Cincinnati (8-3) – Freshman Lance Stephenson averages a team-high 12.5 points. (6)
8. Marquette (8-3) – The Golden Eagles open Big East play with four straight games against ranked teams. (8)
9. Notre Dame (11-2) – The loss to Loyola Marymount could hurt the Irish on Selection Sunday. (10)
10. St. John's (10-2) – Cornell spoiled the holidays for the Red Storm. (9)
11. South Florida (10-2) – The Bulls have won three straight without Augustus Gilchrist. (11)
12. Louisville (8-3) – The Cardinals are getting better – but it's still too early to get your hopes up. (13)
13. Pittsburgh (10-2) – Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown are back in full swing. (12)
14. Providence (8-4) – The Friars' four losses came by an average of 6.7 points. (14)
15. Rutgers (9-2) – Mike Rosario finally gets his team out of the cellar. (15)
16. DePaul (7-5) – The Blue Demons hit rock bottom in Tuesday's loss to Florida Gulf Coast. (15)
Rutgers – It's not as if anyone is ready to predict an NCAA berth – or even an NIT berth – for the Scarlet Knights. But it's hard not to notice the strides made by Fred Hill's squad. Rutgers has won six straight for the first time since winning eight straight in 2001. Even more impressive is that the Scarlet Knights are doing it without standout forward Greg Echenique, who was averaging 12.6 points and 7.7 boards when he was lost for the season following eye surgery. Rutgers needs just two more wins to match the 11 it posted last season. And you can bet it will top its 2-16 Big East record of a year ago.
Cincinnati – The hype surrounding the Bearcats died quickly after last week's embarrassing 64-47 blowout against Alabama-Birmingham. Losing in overtime to crosstown rival Xavier is one thing. Getting your tail kicked by a Conference USA school is another. The good thing is that Mick Cronin's squad has a chance to redeem itself when it opens Big East play Wednesday against Connecticut.
THREE TO WATCH
West Virginia at Seton Hall – The Mountaineers – the sexy pick to win the Big East title – drew a tough opening game against the upstart Pirates, who have one of the more talented teams in the league.
Syracuse at Seton Hall – If Seton Hall can't get by West Virginia it will have a second chance of a mammoth upset against the fifth-ranked Orange, who have been tested only once (by Florida) in the last month.
Connecticut at Cincinnati – If the Bearcats have made significant strides, then they'll find a way to win this game at home. Deonta Vaughn needs to come up big – especially on defense – against Connecticut's standout guards.
Trevon Hughes has made his mark.
(Andy Manis/AP Photo)
1. Purdue (11-0) – Opponents are shooting just 39.4 percent against the Boilermakers. (1)
2. Michigan State (9-3) – Despite the loss, the Spartans were impressive at times against Texas. (2)
3. Wisconsin (9-2) – Trevon Hughes has passed the 1,000-point plateau for his career. (4)
4. Northwestern (10-1) – The Wildcats have legitimate NCAA tournament hopes. (5)
5. Ohio State (10-2) – It's been nearly three weeks since Evan Turner's injury, but it feels like much longer. (5)
6. Minnesota (9-3) – Royce White's departure is probably a good thing. (6)
7. Illinois (8-4) – How did this team lose to Georgia? (3)
8. Michigan (6-5) – The Wolverines did better than expected in an 11-point loss to No. 1 Kansas. (8)
9. Penn State (8-4) – Talor Battle leads the teams in points, rebounds and assists. (9)
10. Indiana (5-6) – Fans can't be happy after Tuesday's loss to Loyola (Md.). (10)
11. Iowa (5-7) – Second-leading scorer Anthony Tucker has been suspended indefinitely following his arrest for public intoxication. (11)
Michigan State – Don't get too down on the Spartans. Even though they have three losses, this is still a very, very good team. That was evident on Tuesday, when Michigan State walked into a hostile Frank Erwin Center and went nose-to-nose with No. 2 Texas before losing 79-68. The Spartans were winning with just under 13 minutes remaining. The guess here is that the Big Ten will be a two-team race between Michigan State and Purdue.
Indiana – Just two weeks ago the Hoosiers were featured in the "Rising" section following a victory over Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden. Now they're lamenting a horrendous loss to a 6-5 Loyola squad. The rebuilding project in Bloomington is a big one, but Tom Crean's squad should win those kinds of games.
THREE TO WATCH
Penn State at Minnesota – Both teams are looking to start the Big Ten season on a strong note, but the Golden Gophers have the clear-cut advantage in this one.
Northwestern at Illinois – Will the momentum gained from a successful run through its non-conference schedule carry over for Northwestern? We'll find out.
Texas-Arlington at Michigan State – The Mavericks aren't very good, but they do feature one of the nation's top scorers in Marquez Haynes, who averages 25.2 points per game.
Cole Aldrich has not hit his stride.
(Orlin Wagner/AP Photo)
1. Texas (11-0) – Could Damion James become a first-team All-American? (2)
2. Kansas (11-0) – The Jayhawks need to get Cole Aldrich more involved in the offense. (1)
3. Kansas State (11-1) – The record is even more impressive considering the Wildcats' tough non-conference schedule. (3)
4. Texas Tech (10-1) – The Red Raiders broke the 100-point barrier against Stanford. (4)
5. Oklahoma State (10-1) – Marshall Moses is becoming a star. (7)
6. Baylor (9-1) – Upcoming games against Arkansas and South Carolina are huge for the Bears. (6)
7. Texas A&M (9-3) – Second-leading scorer Derrick Roland suffered what appeared to be a career-ending leg injury in Tuesday's loss at Washington. (5)
8. Iowa State (9-3) – The Cyclones have some puzzling losses, but their upside is huge. (9)
9. Oklahoma (8-4) – Is Willie Warren becoming a team cancer? (8)
10. Nebraska (9-3) – Looking past the Cornhuskers is a mistake for any team. (11)
11. Missouri (8-3) – Looks like last season's Elite Eight run was a flash in the pan. (10)
12. Colorado (7-4) – The Buffaloes have a legitimate chance of escaping the cellar. (12)
Nebraska – Doc Sadler continues to win games with arguably the least talent in the league. In late November, the Cornhuskers won at USC. This week they defeated the same Tulsa squad that whipped Oklahoma State. If Nebraska had one star player – just one – Sadler could probably produce an NCAA tournament team. Instead, Nebraska will probably fall just short once again, but even an NIT bid would be quite an accomplishment for Sadler and his players.
Texas A&M – The gruesome leg injury suffered by Derrick Roland at Washington on Tuesday could affect the Aggies for the rest of the season. After Roland was taken to the hospital, many of Texas A&M's players wept openly for the remainder of the game. Coach Mark Turgeon even considered leaving the arena to be with his fallen star, who will likely never play again. Along with losing their second-leading scorer, the Aggies also lost one of their biggest leaders. Texas A&M would've been a fringe NCAA tournament team with Roland. Without him? We'll just have to wait and see.
THREE TO WATCH
Texas Tech at New Mexico – The Red Raiders are averaging 87.2 points over their past five games, but they'll be hard-pressed to beat the Lobos in The Pit.
Pacific at Oklahoma State – This is a dangerous game for the Cowboys against a very well-coached team.
Baylor vs. Arkansas in Little Rock – The Bears have to win games like this if they have any hopes of making the NCAA tournament.
Mike Gerrity has USC thinking it can contend.
(Eugene Tanner/AP Photo)
1. Washington (8-2) – The Huskies are the only ranked team in the league. (1)
2. USC (7-4) – Could the Trojans actually have a chance at an NCAA berth? (8)
3. Cal (6-4) – The Bears are getting better. Just ask Kansas. (2)
4. Washington State (10-2) – Klay Thompson is averaging 25 points (3)
5. Arizona State (10-3) – The Sun Devils open Pac-10 play at UCLA on New Year's Eve. (4)
6. Arizona (6-5) – Nic Wise's layup with 1 second left beat N.C. State on Wednesday and he prevented disaster with his buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Lipscomb. (6)
7. Stanford (5-6) – The Cardinal are 0-4 on the road. (5)
8. Oregon State (6-5) – Seth Tarver leads the team in points, rebounds and assists. (7)
9. Oregon (7-4) – Malcolm Armstead is blossoming in the absence of standout point guard Tajuan Porter. (9)
10. UCLA (4-7) – Five players reached double figures in Tuesday's victory over Colorado State. (10)
USC – The Trojans have won three straight since point guard Mike Gerrity, a Charlotte transfer, was deemed eligible the night before USC's shocking upset of Tennessee. All of a sudden a squad that couldn't even beat Nebraska or Loyola Marymount is marking victories over the ninth-ranked Vols and a St. Mary's squad that is just about as good as any team in the Pac-10. The addition of Leonard Washington at the semester break has also helped.
Stanford – Less than a month ago the Cardinal nearly found themselves celebrating a victory over Kentucky in Cancun before losing in overtime. It was an excellent effort by Johnny Dawkins' squad but, unfortunately, Stanford didn't capitalize on the momentum in the ensuing weeks. Tuesday's loss at Texas Tech was the third in a row for the Cardinal, who have yet to defeat a quality team.
THREE TO WATCH
Delaware State at UCLA – Hopefully the Bruins can gain some confidence.
BYU at Arizona – The Wildcats will be looking to hand BYU its second loss of the season.
James Madison at Stanford – The Cardinal need a jolt of momentum before the beginning of Pac-10 play.
DeAndre Liggins has picked up Kentucky.
(Mike Humphrey/AP Photo)
1. Kentucky (13-0) – DeAndre Liggins is averaging 12.3 minutes a game since being reinstated last week. (1)
2. Tennessee (9-2) – Despite the loss to USC, this is still the SEC's second-most talented team. (2)
3. Ole Miss (10-2) – The Rebels struggled a bit to beat UTEP and Southern Miss. (3)
4. Mississippi State (10-2) – The Bulldogs are beginning to put everything together. (5)
5. Florida (8-3) – Kenny Boynton averages 13.7 points per game. (4)
6. Alabama (8-4) – The Tide's two best wins are against Michigan and Baylor. (6)
7. Vanderbilt (8-3) – Don't give up on the Commodores just yet. (8)
8. South Carolina (8-3) – The Gamecocks' season is being ruined by injuries. (7)
9. LSU (8-3) – No bad losses. No good wins. (9)
10. Georgia (6-4) – Raise your hand if you saw the victory over Illinois coming. (10)
11. Auburn (6-6) – Give the Tigers credit for playing a tough schedule – not that it excuses losses to Troy and Sam Houston State. (10)
12. Arkansas (7-5) – The Razorbacks handed Missouri State its first loss. But that says more about Missouri State than it does Arkansas. (12)
Kentucky – A few weeks ago the Wildcats were beating opponents on talent alone. Now they're starting to resemble a true team. Players are becoming more and more selfless as they begin to accept their roles, and freshmen such as DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe have improved their consistency, which is downright scary for opponents.
Florida – Losing three games in a row is bad enough, but it's even worse when two of those losses are against Richmond and South Alabama. But that's exactly what's happened in Gainesville, where Florida has come back down to earth following an 8-0 start. If the Gators don't wake up they could be in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the third straight year.
THREE TO WATCH
LSU at Xavier – The Tigers need a signature win heading into SEC play, and beating the Musketeers at their place would be just that.
South Carolina at Boston College – Beating the Eagles on the road would be an impressive feat for a Gamecocks squad that will be without Dominique Archie (knee) for the rest of the season.
Baylor vs. Arkansas in Little Rock – The Bears have some talented players, but Arkansas can win this game if it plays good defense and forces Baylor into some bad shots.
Mike Davis is in command at UAB.
(Darron Cummings/AP Photo)
1. Temple (9-2) – Get ready, Owls fans. Kansas is coming to town on Jan. 2. (5)
2. Alabama-Birmingham (11-1) – Will the Blazers be able to keep Mike Davis beyond this season? (6)
3. New Mexico (12-1) – The Lobos got spanked by Oral Roberts to drop two spots. (1)
4. Gonzaga (8-3) – Good gosh, what happened against Duke? (2)
5. Northern Iowa (9-1) – Kwadzo Ahelegbe averages 14.4 points. (9)
6. St. Mary's (10-2) – The Gaels' two losses are against USC and Vanderbilt. (10)
7. Dayton (9-2) – The Flyers have won seven straight. (11)
8. Butler (8-4) – The Bulldogs were shell-shocked at UAB. (3)
9. Xavier (7-4) – Don't let the record fool you. The Musketeers will contend for the Atlantic 10 title. (NR)
10. UNLV (12-1) – The Rebels are spending Christmas in Hawaii. Must be nice. (12)
11. Memphis (8-2) – Josh Pastner has a lot of work to do. (4)
12. Richmond (9-3) – Florida, South Carolina, Missouri, Mississippi State. Wow, what a schedule. (NR)
Alabama-Birmingham – Not many teams – regardless of conference – had as good of a week as the Blazers. Three days after whipping No. 25 Cincinnati by 17 points, Mike Davis' squad defeated the same South Alabama team that went on to beat Florida. Then, on Tuesday, UAB defeated No. 20 Butler 67-57. Road games remain against Virginia and Arkansas before Conference USA play begins Jan. 6. At this point the Blazers would have to be the favorite to win the league title.
Memphis – The Tigers are a good team – but certainly not a great one. Not that it's anyone's fault. Departures, including John Calipari's, contributed to the gutting of Memphis. The Tigers have just one star player (Elliot Williams) and a bunch of role players such as Doneal Mack, Willie Kemp, Roburt Sallie, Wesley Witherspoon and Will Coleman. Those guys are decent, but none of them are special. Memphis will do well to finish third in Conference USA.
THREE TO WATCH
UNLV vs. USC in Honolulu – The championship game of the Diamond Head Classic should be entertaining.
IUPUI at Memphis – The Tigers need a confidence boost as they prepare for what appears to be a rugged Conference USA schedule.
Texas Tech at New Mexico – The Lobos' homecourt advantage should come into play against a Texas Tech squad that looked rattled at times in a loss at Wichita State.