No favorite, plenty of surprises, so far

The first two months of the college basketball season have been educational for everyone. Lessons have been learned by observers, fans, coaches and players.

Fittingly, the coaches and players who continue to learn and improve over the next two months will be in the best position to cut down the nets not only in their own conference tournaments, but also in San Antonio come April 5.

The real season has tipped off -- conference play. Teams can no longer rely on home cooking, creative scheduling or preseason expectations. Teams now have to go to their rivals' home courts for backyard brawls, with no secrets or tricks, to determine who is a contender and who is a pretender.

Here is what we've learned in 2003 and can expect into 2004.

The Trophy Is Truly Up For Grabs
Every season, we seem to say the same thing: "More than ever, college basketball is really wide open." Well, this season, it really is wide open -- and definitely more than ever. There is no dominant team thus far. And what makes the chase to the championship even more unpredictable is only a few teams even have the chance to be dominant before the year is out.

Last season, Syracuse may have won the national championship despite being unranked in the preseason. But three of the Final Four teams in New Orleans came from the preseason top 20.

Kansas was somewhere in the top three in most preseason polls and stayed near the top despite losing Wayne Simien. Texas was a preseason top-10 team and strong all season. Marquette may have been a surprising participant in New Orleans, but was ranked in the top 20 before the season tipped off and certainly projected to be a capable team.

Remember, only the seeding of Kansas and Arizona in the same region kept both out of the Final Four. Louisville busted out of the gate early, while Kentucky emerged as a dominant defensive team that did nothing but beat teams until Keith Bogans was injured in the NCAA Tournament. As "wide open" as last season may have seemed, there were teams expected to contend for the title who did exactly that well into March.

This year? Only Connecticut appears to be capable of truly dominating. But even the consensus preseason No. 1 team has not yet hit its full stride, and is struggling from the free throw line -- a potential canary in their championship coal mine that could give UConn the shaft. Then again, every team seems to have a significant downside to go with its strengths. There are few teams entering conference play without question marks.

The game is younger than ever, and while we are still adjusting to it, so too are the teams expected to win it all. Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony crashed our annual senior prom, where we would opine that quality seniors like Ricky Moore, Mateen Cleaves, Shane Battier and Juan Dixon were more valuable than the younger colts that had not yet learned to run. Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich were about to add to that birthright when Carmelo wouldn't wait his turn and turned our neat little experience theory on its head.

Well, I still think that juniors and seniors are vital for high level consistency and title runs, but no team can win without integrating young talent. The early season has shown us that it is still anybody's national championship, and to win the title, teams have to continue to improve, because the team you are in December will not be the team you are in March. You will either be better or worse, a contender or a pretender.

Surprise ... Surprise ... Surprise
Talk about a group of teams Gomer Pyle would love. Georgia Tech, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Providence, Rhode Island, Charlotte and Alabama have surprised knowledgeable observers the most over the first two months.

Georgia Tech has played the best basketball, consistently playing up to its potential better than any other team. Paul Hewitt has injected confidence into this team and has boldly decided to challenge the current powers that be in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets are all the same size, can switch everything, and can push the tempo with 94 feet of defense. On the offensive end, Georgia Tech has a lot of weapons who can shoot, pass and attack off the dribble. Georgia Tech may lack size, but not heart, and it is a question of whose strength will dominate in a particular game.

Stanford is only a surprise in that the Cardinal has played so well without Josh Childress, who had been sidelined early in the season. Stanford continues to play solid, no-frills, man-to-man defense that limits teams to one contested shot. Stanford forces teams to make good basketball plays under duress. Chris Hernandez is finally healthy, and Matt Lottich is one of the best shooting guards in the country who nobody knows. Lottich is a catch-and-shoot player who knows how to use and come off screens. Oh, and Stanford has its usual well-schooled big men who limit mistakes. It's too bad the league will hurt the power ratings of both the Cardinal and Arizona, as each are Final Four-worthy.

Vanderbilt is more than Matt Freije, but Freije is more than enough to make a decent team very good. I think Freije is better than Dan Langhi was at Vandy. He can shoot it, put it down inside the paint while posting up his defender, and he gets to the free throw line. Freije is surrounded by very good players who get along with each other and play hard.

Providence gave Texas all it could handle, and did so without Rob Sanders in the lineup. Tim Welsh has one of the top four teams in the Big East, and will be in the NCAA Tournament. Ryan Gomes is a junior Adrian Dantley with a basketball IQ that Einstein would envy.

Rhode Island was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean a few years ago, but Jim Baron has brought the Rams back to the upper division of the Atlantic 10. Dawan Robinson, Dustin Hellenga and Brian Woodward are the leaders and give Rhody the look similar to those teams Al Skinner molded into NCAA participants. Baron is finally getting the recognition he deserves as a top-flight coach now that he doesn't have to play with brown uniforms.

Charlotte fired the first shot of the season, beating Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in both teams' openers. As often as the Orangemen have played at home, Charlotte has played on the road, and the 49ers could easily have just one loss on the year. Bobby Lutz is playing the same wide-open style, with changing defenses, and his team has a chance in Conference USA. In fact, C-USA looks surprisingly strong at the top, with Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, Charlotte and Marquette all capable of winning the league.

Last year, Alabama had talented and experienced players, but couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat. But this year, Mark Gottfried has Alabama playing with a free mind, and the Tide is rolling. Kennedy Winston is healthy and getting his explosiveness back, and the young guys are playing like veterans. The road will be tough for Bama, but home seems sweet again.

The Committee Is Watching
Michigan State may have taken scheduling to the extreme, but at least Tom Izzo gave his team a chance to rack up some true quality wins in the non-conference season. If the Spartans had gone 2-4 against that monster schedule, Michigan State would be sitting pretty going into conference play. As it is, the Spartans will still have a good chance at a bid with an upper-division Big Ten showing.

Teams like Georgetown, N.C. State and Virginia didn't play anybody. As a result, each has put the burden on itself to win in conference, or be subject to being overlooked by the NCAA selection committee in March -- especially when it comes to seeding.

Remember, the key is who you play and who you beat, especially on the road. When push comes to shove, Michigan State's schedule may do more to impress the committee, and may make the difference in a close call. The key is the number of games you win against the RPI Top 25 and the RPI Top 50. Win more games in those categories than your competition, and you will get the nod.

Looking at the schedules and wins by teams around the county, it becomes clear that the ACC is the strongest conference. The pre-conference season proved Duke, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and North Carolina are all Final Four contenders, while Maryland, Florida State and N.C. State are NCAA worthy.

The ACC is stronger at the top than any other conference. The SEC is second, and could get six or seven bids to the NCAA Tournament (Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama, Auburn, and South Carolina). The Big East (UConn, Pitt, Providence, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Notre Dame and Boston College) and the Big 12 (Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Nebraska and Missouri) are next in line, and each could get five or six bids. Conference USA could send Marquette, Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati and Charlotte.

As for some other traditionally strong conferences, they've shown some glaring weakness. The Big Ten and Pac 10 are in trouble. Each needs the top teams to run the table against the bottom-dwellers.

The Big Ten has Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan looking forward to the NCAAs, but could be limited to just four bids. The same story out West, where Arizona and Stanford are the only sure things right now. UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State are still scratching to be considered. More than ever, these two leagues will be rooting for no upsets in those mid-major tournaments that may take their bids away in March.

Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send Jay a question to possibly answer in his weekly mailbag on ESPN.com.