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Thursday, December 26, 2013
Updated: December 27, 11:36 AM ET
Ten to watch in conference play

By Dick Vitale
ESPN.com

Jamie Dixon
Jamie Dixon and Pitt are 10-1, but a challenging ACC schedule starts next week with games against NC State and Maryland.

A college basketball season breaks down to four quarters. Part one is the pre-conference schedule, where you can evaluate your team and learn more about strengths and weaknesses. The second portion is the conference schedule. Then comes conference tournament time, followed by the Big Dance.

Now that we are wrapping up the first phase and most of the non-conference games have been played, we can look at a number of teams that have feasted early -- some with quality wins and others with visits to Cupcake City. Are these teams off to fast starts contenders or pretenders? Let's look at 10 teams that fall into that category (won-loss records as of Thursday, Dec. 26):

• SMU (American Athletic, 10-2): Larry Brown's team opened 8-1 last season but finished 15-17 overall. This season, the Mustangs' only losses have come at Arkansas and at home vs. Virginia by three points, but they have loaded up against the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, McNeese State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington. We will learn a lot more about the Mustangs in their first three league games -- at Cincinnati, Connecticut and at Louisville.

• George Washington (A-10, 10-1): The Colonials have wins over Creighton, Maryland, Miami and Manhattan. The lone loss came against Marquette at the Wooden Legacy tournament in California. Senior transfer Maurice Creek has been a feel-good story so far this season after so many injuries while at Indiana. Can GW keep this up?

Maurice Creek
Maurice Creek is scoring 16.3 points per game for 10-1 George Washington.

• Pittsburgh (ACC, 11-1): The Panthers have rolled against the likes of Savannah State, Howard and Cal-Poly, with a 44-43 loss to Cincinnati at the Jimmy V Classic their lone blemish. Starting the New Year at NC State will not be easy. Tough tests come later in January against Syracuse and Duke, and that will give a true indication of where Jamie Dixon's team really is.

• Oklahoma (Big 12, 11-1): Lon Kruger's team lost to Michigan State early on. The Sooners have won a few tight games, beating Seton Hall by one and Texas-Arlington by two. There is talent in Norman, and we will find out a lot over the next six grueling games -- Louisiana Tech, at Texas, Kansas, Iowa State, at Kansas State and at Baylor. Talk about running the gauntlet, baby!

• St. John's (Big East, 8-3): Losing to Wisconsin and Syracuse is one thing, but the loss to Penn State in Brooklyn was disappointing. The Red Storm have few quality wins with which to impress the NCAA committee at this point, so success in league play is vital. Opening Big East play with back-to-back road games at Xavier and at Georgetown is not easy, and that's followed by a showdown against unbeaten Villanova.

• Minnesota (Big Ten, 10-2): Richard Pitino's team has a win over Florida State and that's looking like a quality win now. Their only losses were to Syracuse and Arkansas. The Big Ten is so tough and the Golden Gophers have a vicious stretch starting Jan. 11: At Michigan State, home for Ohio State, at Iowa and home against Wisconsin. That four-game stretch against ranked teams will tell us a lot.

• Utah State (Mountain West, 9-2): Is there an adjustment from the WAC to the Mountain West? The Aggies have recognizable wins over USC and Mississippi State, but they have also lost to BYU and Pacific. Games next month at Boise State and UNLV and at home against San Diego State will tell us how they're handling the transition.

• Utah (Pac-12, 10-1): The Utes were 15-18 last season and Larry Krystowiak has done a lot to turn things around. A two-point loss to a very good Boise State team is the only thing separating the Utes from being undefeated and the fans at Huntsman Center had to be excited about a 17-point win over BYU. Facing the likes of Arizona, UCLA and Oregon in conference play will be more challenging.

• LSU (SEC, 8-2): Johnny Jones has a lot of young talent and the two losses came against quality opponents in Memphis and Massachusetts. Can the Tigers compete for an NCAA bid? Based on expectations, the answer is yes. A three-game stretch next month featuring a visit to Mississippi and home games against Vanderbilt and Missouri will tell us more.

• Pacific (WCC, 9-2): The Tigers' two losses were blowout city -- to Oregon by 23 and Princeton by 25. And two of their first three league games are tough -- St. Mary's and at Gonzaga. Welcome to the WCC!