It's only January. But March can be seen in the distance.
Monday provided a key prove-it stage in some conferences races. Not all key contenders were in action, but this was a time to create separation between leaders. Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina both held serve, winning crucial home games against top-25 competition to keep pace in the Big 12, Big Ten and the ACC standings.
Here's what we learned Monday:
Big 12: The conference still runs through Kansas
Kansas has won 14 consecutive Big 12 titles. It won't be easy to get No. 15, however. Udoka Azubuike is out for the season. KU lost at Iowa State. But Texas Tech then lost at home to Iowa State to open things back up...only for Kansas to lose at last place West Virginia. Then Texas Tech lost to Baylor. A lot's happened.
Kansas, Iowa State, Kansas State and Texas Tech were all 4-2 going into Monday. But the Jayhawks beat Iowa State in Allen Fieldhouse, 80-76, to earn a crucial split of the season series. Dedric Lawson had 29 points and 15 rebounds.
After visiting Kentucky on Saturday, the Jayhawks have a brutal three-game Big 12 stretch of at Texas (Jan. 29), vs. Texas Tech (Feb. 2) and at K-State (Feb. 5).
Those games could be the difference. If KU had lost to Iowa State again on Monday, it would be a game back out of first and down a head-to-head vs. Iowa State. Instead, the Jayhawks got the win.
Now 5-2, Kansas has another huge home game coming February 2: Texas Tech comes to Lawrence.
Big Ten: It's Michigan-Michigan State as the Spartans rout surging Maryland
Make it 20 Big Ten wins in a row for the Spartans.
With former star Miles Bridges watching, Michigan State handed Maryland its first loss since Dec. 22, 69-55. The Spartans affirmed that, at least right now, it'll be all about the Michigan schools for the Big Ten regular season crown.
Michigan State is 8-0 in the conference and 17-2 overall. Michigan is 17-1 overall and 6-1 in the Big Ten. After those two, Purdue and Maryland are the only schools with only two Big Ten losses. The Big Ten's depth means there are plenty of possible potholes in the schedule, but Monday showed Michigan State and Michigan will remain the favorites.
What makes Michigan State's win even more impressive is it happened without much help from second-leading scorer Nick Ward. The junior was 0-for-3 from the field and finished with four fouls and zero points. But Cassius Winston and Kenny Goins both scored 14 points and the defense held Maryland to only 34.4 percent shooting.
ACC: North Carolina remains in one-loss pack with blowout win against Virginia Tech
Going into Monday, six schools were tied in the ACC standings at 4-1: Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Whew.
Some early contenders will drop off, though UNC has looked better since losing by 21 points to Louisville at home on January 12. Since then, the Tar Heels are 3-0 against Notre Dame, Miami and now ranked Virginia Tech. On Monday, UNC routed Virginia Tech 103-82.
Coby White scored 27 points and Nassir Little added 23 as the Tar Heels improved to 15-4 overall and 5-1 in the ACC. North Carolina trailed early but then went on a 20-0 run to take control. UNC made 16 of 34 3-point attempts in reaching the century mark.
The ACC slate is brutal — for everyone. For UNC, that win against the Hokies could matter a bunch. UNC plays Virginia and Syracuse only once (and both are at home), plus it still must visit Louisville and play Duke twice, among other tough games.
In Andy Katz's most recent bracket, the Tar Heels were a No. 3 seed. Conference rivals Duke and Virginia were both No. 1 seeds. So the opportunities are there.