With the exception of the late-starting Ivy League (which will have its first full slate of games next week), action in traditional one-bid conferences is under way all across the country.
Everything looked so easy to predict just a month ago, as strengths and weaknesses seemed so apparent on paper. However, some teams have bucked the odds to make surprisingly strong league starts.
And three of those squads all share the same nickname. Perhaps inspired by the play of Pittsburgh, the nation's No. 1 team, three groups of Panthers have bared their metaphorical fangs since the calendar turned to 2009. In the wild, panthers are large and long felines that use extreme stealth to stalk their prey. In college basketball, mid-major Panthers have shown the ability to leap out from behind poor nonconference starts to strike fear into their leagues.
It's only fair to give proper warning before your brackets are unexpectedly full of big cats.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon League): The HL routinely beat power-conference teams in December. (Cleveland State over Syracuse comes to mind, as well as Illinois-Chicago winning at Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.) UWM didn't take part in this holiday party, struggling to a pedestrian 5-5 non-league record. These Panthers have been well off the national radar since earning three NCAA wins in two years (2005 and 2006), but have used the potent blend of 3-point shooting and rebounding to open their conference season 6-1, which is just a half-game behind nationally ranked Butler (their first meeting is Jan. 24). Tone Boyle, a juco transfer from Highland CC in Freeport, Ill., has led a pack of productive newcomers. The junior guard paces the team with 14.9 ppg.
Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley): There's nobody left from a program that went to the NCAAs three straight times in the middle part of the decade. UNI has only managed a pair of 9-9 league seasons since that run. The junior-heavy team was pounded by Marquette, Iowa and Wyoming, but if not for a bounce or two in a Valley-opening 85-84 loss at Indiana State, this group of Panthers would be perfect in the MVC. Ben Jacobson's 11-6 (5-1 MVC) crew has been unstoppable from 3, converting 44 percent of its opportunities since league contests resumed. Hot shooting has helped them to key road wins at Creighton and Southern Illinois, traditionally the toughest places to play in the Valley.
Prairie View A&M (SWAC): No Panthers have brought their natural namesakes as much shame of late. Prairie View has not won more than eight games in a season since 2002-03, and has not appeared in the NCAA tournament since 1998, when it was more than doubled up on the scoreboard by Kansas (110-52). This year's team did not beat a single Division I opponent in the nonconference (0-9), collecting its four wins at the expense of lower-tier teams like Champion Baptist and Southwest Assemblies of God. But the Panthers are 3-0 in the SWAC, having swept their road trip to Southern and Alcorn State by double-digit margins, then returning to their Baby Dome and beating Texas Southern 72-70. Darnell Hugee has been huge. The 6-foot-7 junior leads the SWAC with 7.8 rpg.
By the way, I'll be chatting at 4 p.m. today ... make sure to send those questions in: http://proxy.espn.go.com/chat/chatESPN?event_id=24582