The nonconference portion of the most balanced season in years is essentially over. And with three different teams ranked at No. 1 already this season, the race to a national champion seems as wide open as ever.
It might be hyperbole to call the last two months the best November and December we have ever seen, but it was certainly fun. Some questions have been answered. Most have not. But with conference play beginning in earnest this week, here are five storylines to follow the remainder of the season.
Who will emerge as the best team in the ACC?
This is shaping up to be an ACC season unlike any other since Notre Dame joined the league in 2013. The Irish were the conference's standard-bearers and were elite be every definition, winning or sharing a regular-season league title all six of those seasons and then earning No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Now Notre Dame is a complete rebuild, and it has left the championship race uncertain. The ACC doesn't have a team clearly headed for a No. 1 seed, let alone a true favorite to win the conference.
No. 7 Louisville, No. 8 Florida State and No. 9 NC State are the most notable ACC teams coming out of nonconference play, but none appear likely to pull away from each other, a necessity if anyone from the conference is to elevate to elite status and compete with the best from the Pac-12, Baylor and South Carolina for a No. 1 seed.
The Cardinals were the preseason favorite and have that win over then-No. 1 Oregon. Since then, however, they lost to unranked Ohio State, needed two overtimes to beat UT Martin and narrowly escaped a now .500 Syracuse team at home in their league opener.
The Seminoles and Wolfpack have both been impressive and are two of the nation's nine remaining unbeaten teams. This should be the year that one of these consistent and perhaps national championship contenders rises from the shadow of Notre Dame and, to a lesser extent, Louisville. The Seminoles haven't won a regular-season title since 2010. Thirty years have passed since the Wolfpack won a regular-season conference championship.
With only three games total involving the Cardinals, Seminoles and Wolfpack, getting that separation might be difficult. So that final one, Louisville's visit to NC State on Feb. 13 (ACC Network), could go a long way toward determining what should be the most intriguing ACC race in years.
Can Gonzaga, Missouri State and/or South Dakota go unbeaten in conference play?
That three mid-majors are still in play to host NCAA tournament games as a top-four seed is one of the most intriguing storylines and one more example of how balanced this season is. The Bulldogs, Lady Bears and Coyotes enter January with a combined five losses and are all among the top 25 in the RPI. Missouri State (2) and Gonzaga (7) are in the top 10.
All three are also big favorites to win their respective leagues, but it might take more than that to get into the top 16 come Selection Monday. For South Dakota, an undefeated run through the Summit League is a necessity. The Coyotes' résumé (it includes a loss to Missouri State) isn't as strong as the other two and the Summit is the weakest of the three conferences, so even wins within the league will begin to hurt South Dakota's RPI. Any loss along the way would be extremely detrimental.
The Coyotes could very well run the table. Ciara Duffy and Hannah Sjerven might be the two best players in the conference, and chief rival South Dakota State is down this season. The Coyotes already have a 31-point win over Western Illinois to start league play. It will take 15 more nights like that to give South Dakota a chance at bringing NCAA tournament games to Vermillion.
Gonzaga has nonconference wins over Purdue, Washington State and Missouri State, and its only blemish is an overtime loss at Stanford. If the same can be said at the end of the season, the Zags will finish among the committee's top-16 teams. They are far and away the best team in the WCC but will also get everyone's best shot. Portland already made things difficult on Gonzaga in the WCC opener on Sunday. Gonzaga might be able to afford one slipup, but going undefeated would make for a great résumé.
Missouri State's task is the toughest. The Missouri Valley is a top-10-rated conference and Drake is another potential NCAA tournament team. Of course, going unbeaten with two or three wins over the Bulldogs would give the Bears two more quality victories to go with those over Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Dakota (the fact that the Bears played both the Zags and Coyotes was an underrated footnote to the season's first two months).
Three mid-majors as tournament hosts would be unprecedented and isn't likely. But the fact that it's a conversation piece at this stage of the season is a boost to the sport and keeps more eyes on the races beyond the Power 5.
Is the Big Ten really this good?
The Big Ten's resurgence resulted in its best nonconference result -- a .788 winning percentage.
Ten of the league's 14 teams entered conference play with nine or more wins, and even seven-win Ohio State boasts the league's signature win, an upset of Louisville. The league won the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the first time. Eleven Big Ten teams are still legitimately in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth. The most the conference has ever had is seven.
Now the fun begins. Beating each other within conference play will cause some attrition in the battle for postseason spots, but if teams like Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State and Purdue -- all of whom missed the NCAA tournament last season -- win enough the rest of the way and are able to prove what they did in the nonconference was not a fluke, the league will still look this deep come Selection Monday.
Maryland remains the favorite to win the conference and Saturday's win over Michigan was a good start, but the Terrapins' inconsistent showing in the first two months gives confidence to the rest of the league. A runaway champion is not what the Big Ten wants if it is to capitalize on this outstanding November and December and translate that into NCAA tournament bids.
How will Lauren Cox's health hold up?
Baylor looks like it could win the Big 12 without a healthy Lauren Cox, but the Lady Bears' aspirations to win back-to-back national championships are probably contingent on keeping their All-American healthy. The foot injury that kept the 6-foot-4 Cox sidelined for seven weeks is reportedly healed and she has been practicing at full strength, with a return to game action set for Monday.
This marks Cox's second significant injury in eight months. The diagnosis was a stress reaction, and the extended rest was necessary so the injury didn't elevate to a stress fracture. Foot problems can be tricky and now every game Baylor plays will include analysis of Cox's right foot -- how is her mobility, is she playing too many/not enough minutes, how long will it take for her to be in peak game shape.
A player of her talent, versatility and experience shouldn't be difficult to reincorporate into the rotation, and sophomores NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo have been effective inside. Baylor has suffered just one loss -- admittedly in a game in which Cox would have really helped -- to South Carolina in the Virgin Islands. That stumble shouldn't hinder where the Lady Bears want to end up in March, but any more injury issues for Cox might.
Where does the race for national player of the year stand?
The race in the Pac-12, the nation's best conference this season, will likely be closer than the national player of the year contest. Oregon senior Sabrina Ionescu came into the season as the favorite, and the player who has become almost synonymous with the triple-double (three more this season, including back-to-back outings in her last two games) is nearly averaging one (15.0 points, 9.4 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game).
A bona fide next contender has yet to emerge, and Ionescu will likely garner even more of the spotlight in the new year with season-defining games against Oregon State, Stanford and UConn still to come. If she is her usual productive and occasionally dynamic self in those games, it should eliminate any doubt that this is anything but a one-player race.
If Oregon emerges as the champion from what could be near-weekly showdowns in the Pac-12 and heads to the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, the odds are heavily against anyone else winning any of the postseason hardware.