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John Marshall | The Associated Press | December 31, 2013

Six races to watch as conference play begins

College basketball's non-conference season cleared a few things up, identifying the front runners for March while sprinkling a few surprises in along the way.

Now it's time for the true contenders distinguish themselves.

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The majority of the conference seasons start this week and there should be some great races, particularly among the bigger conferences.

To get you ready, here's a rundown of six of the conferences:

BIG TEN: The nation's top RPI conference is loaded with talented teams, including three in the top 5 of the Associated Press poll: No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. Michigan State. The Buckeyes and Badgers are both undefeated and the Spartans have just one loss in 12 games. But it doesn't stop at the top. Illinois, No. 22 Iowa and Minnesota were all 11-2 heading into conference play, while Indiana and Purdue were 10-3. Michigan is a bit of a surprise with four losses after opening the preseason at No. 7, but the conference doesn't have a team with a losing record. This conference is brutal every year and could be even more so this season.

BIG 12: The conference doesn't have the best RPI, but it too is jammed with good teams. No. 13 Iowa State leads the way at 11-0, No. 6 Oklahoma State is 11-1 and the conference is another without a losing record among its 10 teams. Favorite Kansas has three losses already, but the Jayhawks have the kind of talent that should have them contending for another title at the end. The Big 12 also has some of the nation's most dynamic players, including Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart and Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins.

BIG EAST: Conference realignment could have hurt the Big East, but doesn't seem to have lessened it at all. No. 11 Villanova won its first 11 games before losing to No. 2 Syracuse on Saturday and could be a Final Four contender. Conference newbies and former mid-majors Butler and Creighton were solid during the non-conference season, each going 10-2, and both Providence and Xavier are above 10 wins. This will likely be a race that goes down to the wire.

PAC-12: Top-ranked Arizona, as expected, is the clear favorite heading into conference play. The Wildcats are undefeated, loaded and have spent a month atop the poll. Arizona could have a tough time remaining undefeated in a conference that's as good as any in the country. No. 10 Oregon has yet to lose a game, Utah has one loss and six teams have at least 11 wins. It will likely be hard for anyone to knock off Arizona for the conference title, but the Pac-12 could have a stream of teams get into the NCAA tournament after getting shortchanged the past few years.

ACC: The conference appears to have two clear top dogs: Syracuse and No. 7 Duke. The Blue Devils have two losses and those were to Kansas and Arizona. The wild card in the ACC race will be No. 19 North Carolina. The Tar Heels' resume includes wins against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, but also losses to Belmont in Chapel Hill and to UAB. North Carolina is undoubtedly a talented team, but how far it goes will depend on which team shows up. Should be a lot of good teams with some talent after those top three.

SEC: Kentucky, with another of John Calipari's top recruiting classes, opened as the preseason No. 1. Unlike when the Wildcats' meshed right away on the way to the 2012 national championship, this group is still trying to find its groove, with three losses already. No. 25 Missouri leads the conference at 11-1, but Florida, at 10-2, is ranked 13 points higher. The bottom half of the SEC looks pretty weak, so expect a few blowouts during the conference season. Kentucky is still loaded with talent, so the Wildcats could be in the mix for a national-title run once they get their mojo going.

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