Handicapping the Power 5 races

Lexie Brown, Duke's leading scorer at 20.4 PPG, and the No. 17 Blue Devils are 11-3. Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire

We're already into conference play in women's basketball, and that's where things can really get interesting. We know who the contenders are. But how will they hold up against the opponents who know them best? Here's a look at the Power 5:

ACC: Irish, Cards and Noles top challengers

In four previous seasons in the ACC, Notre Dame has lost just twice. And despite their health woes this season -- which could get even worse depending on how long guard Lili Thompson might be out after suffering a knee injury Sunday -- the Irish are ranked No. 2 in the country.

But No. 3 Louisville is right behind them. The Irish and the Cardinals meet just once in ACC play: at Louisville on Jan. 11 (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). That will feature a guard extravaganza with Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale (20.5 PPG) and Louisville's Asia Durr (20.1), who rank first and fourth in the ACC in scoring.

No. 11 Florida State is the other biggest threat to win the ACC regular-season title. The Seminoles have shared that twice -- in 2009 with Maryland and 2010 with Duke -- although they've never won the ACC tournament. The Seminoles will play at Louisville (Jan. 21) and host Notre Dame (Jan. 28) in back-to-back games a week apart.

No. 17 Duke, which plays at Louisville on Thursday, might be the hardest of the ACC's ranked teams to predict. The Blue Devils have solid victories (Oregon State and Ohio State), and their losses aren't that bad (Villanova, South Carolina, Miami). But offense is a problem for Duke (71.1 PPG), especially in comparison to Florida State (88.2), Notre Dame (85.1) and Louisville (80.7). The Blue Devils scored 55 points or less in their three losses, including 48 against the Hurricanes.

While's Duke's defense has been strong (52.4 average points allowed), Notre Dame is having an uncharacteristic subpar season defensively. That's where you most see the impact of the injuries and short rotation. The Irish are currently last in the league in scoring defense at 68.7.

Big Ten: Offensive firepower is league's hallmark

Only four Big Ten teams went to the NCAA tournament last year, so this league is looking for redemption. The Big Ten started the New Year with four teams ranked in the AP Top 25: No. 10 Ohio State, No. 13 Maryland, No. 18 Iowa and No. 22 Michigan -- with another, Rutgers, knocking on the door.

The Final Four is right in the middle of Big Ten territory -- in Columbus, Ohio -- but are any league teams truly good enough to get that far? There will need to be improvement the rest of Big Ten season.

Offense is the name of the game now in the Big Ten, with standouts like Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell (NCAA-leading 25.8 PPG), Michigan's Katelynn Flaherty (22.8), Iowa's Megan Gustafson (22.5), Minnesota's Kenisha Bell (21.7) and Rutgers' Tyler Scaife (21.6) all in the top 15 in the country in scoring.

As for defense ... well, look mostly to Rutgers for that, as usual (54.9 average points allowed). The Scarlet Knights are back after an abysmal 2016-17. C. Vivian Stringer is just nine victories away from joining the 1,000-win club that added UConn's Geno Auriemma and North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell in December. Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and the late Tennessee coach Pat Summitt are also in it.

Ohio State has the opposite issue: Can the Buckeyes' offense be good enough to offset what remains a problematic defense? Ohio State has been a study in contrasts, with the league's leading offense (89.7 PPG) but the worst defense (70.7 average points allowed).

Iowa has had a terrific start this season, but an early test comes Thursday at Maryland. Since the Terps joined the Big Ten in 2014-15, Ohio State is the only league team to beat them. The Buckeyes-Terps game, which has been the premiere matchup in the league in recent years, is Jan. 22 at Maryland.

Big 12: Familiar faces Baylor, Texas still top contenders

The power corridor in the Big 12 remains the 100 miles of Interstate 35 between Baylor and Texas. The No. 6 Lady Bears and No. 8 Longhorns each have just one loss. Baylor's came at UCLA on Nov. 18 and Texas' at Tennessee on Dec. 10.

The teams meet at Baylor on Jan. 25 and at Texas on Feb. 19. Last year, they split their regular-season matchups -- it was Texas' first victory against Baylor since 2010 -- but the anticipated rematch at the 2017 Big 12 tournament didn't happen.

Instead, West Virginia won that title, knocking out Texas in the semifinals and Baylor in the final.

So far this season, the No. 12 Mountaineers are still without junior guard Tynice Martin, who was the Big 12 tournament MVP last year. She suffered a foot injury during USA Basketball play over the summer, and it's not known when she might return. In her absence, forward Teana Muldrow (21.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG) and guard/forward Naomi Davenport (16.5, 7.8) have been leading the way.

Texas laid an egg in the much-anticipated game at Tennessee, falling 82-75. But the Longhorns bounced back, beating Florida State, Oklahoma and West Virginia coming into Wednesday's matchup with No. 20 Oklahoma State. Guard/forward Joyner Holmes, the Big 12 freshman of the year last season who was suspended for the first semester, is back with the team, adding to one of Texas' biggest strengths: depth.

The Cowgirls have been a pleasant surprise; they've played better than most expected and have a chance at a top-four finish in the league.

Then there's Baylor, whose only loss comes with a caveat: Neither coach Kim Mulkey (family issue) nor forward Lauren Cox (illness) made the trip to UCLA. It doesn't take away from the Bruins' victory, but it puts the Lady Bears' defeat into context.

Baylor, like UConn and Notre Dame, has become a program that just continues to chug along no matter what senior losses it has. Baylor has won or tied for the Big 12 regular-season title seven years in a row and had won six consecutive league tournaments until last year's upset by West Virginia.

And 6-foot-7 junior center Kalani Brown (22.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG) has really come into her own; her 73.6 field goal percentage leads Division I by nearly 5 percentage points. When she gets the ball near the basket, she is almost unstoppable. Especially because defenses also have to contend with the 6-4 Cox (15.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG).

Pac-12: Oregon setting pace for great race

Just expect that there will be upsets in the Pac-12, and games that might look like upsets -- based on rankings -- but really aren't. Six Pac-12 teams are ranked this week, although three of them are at the bottom: No. 23 Cal, No. 24 Stanford and No. 25 Arizona State.

No. 14 UCLA was picked to win the Pac-12 by the coaches, but No. 9 Oregon is currently ranked the highest. Ducks sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu has turned triple-doubles into everyday occurrences; she got her eighth Sunday, making her the NCAA's career leader with 2½ college seasons left for her to play. She's currently averaging league highs in points (18.9) and assists (8.1), and is in the top 15 in rebounding (7.1).

Among the most anticipated weekends in Pac-12 play will be Jan. 19-21, when Oregon and No. 16 Oregon State play each other twice: first in Corvallis and then in Eugene. They're the top two offenses in the league (Oregon 89.2 PPG, Oregon State 80.8) and the Beavers -- led by center Marie Gulich's 16.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.3 blocks -- are also the top defense (53.7 average points allowed).

The Bruins have three losses, but they came to No. 1 UConn, at a better-than-expected Oklahoma State, and against a very motivated Stanford. The Cardinal had fallen out of the AP poll for the first time since 2001 and responded with victories over UCLA and Southern California to get back in.

The Cardinal went to the program's 13th Final Four last season but lost a lot of senior leadership. The key for Stanford this season must be patience and perseverance. The Cardinal have six losses, but a foot injury had kept senior Brittany McPhee out for nine games before she returned in the Dec. 21 loss to Tennessee. The young Cardinal players had a chance to grow without her, and now will be better with her back.

There was a time when the Pac-12 tournament was basically a Stanford coronation; the Cardinal have won 12 of the 16 tourney titles. Now, it's as anticipated as any league tournament and has found a great home at KeyArena in Seattle.

SEC: National champ Gamecocks will try to stay on top

Speaking of much-anticipated conference tournaments: Not to get ahead of ourselves, but there could be several battles in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, site of this year's SEC tournament. South Carolina has won the last three SEC tourney titles. But Tennessee -- which overall has won 17 -- should be one of the top contenders this year, too.

The league is crowing now about having both participants in the national championship football game with Alabama and Georgia. It was the same, of course, for last season's NCAA final in women's hoops, with South Carolina beating Mississippi State.

So far this season, both the No. 5 Bulldogs and the No. 7 Lady Vols remain undefeated; UConn and Louisville are the only other teams in Division I with that status. No. 4 South Carolina and No. 15 Missouri each have one loss and will meet Sunday in the Tigers' Columbia (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET).

The following Sunday, Jan. 14, is another marquee matchup for the Gamecocks, as they host Tennessee. That's part of a stretch that will be a true test of how far the Lady Vols and their young standouts have progressed. From Jan. 11-21, Tennessee plays on the road against No. 19 Texas A&M, South Carolina and Notre Dame, and then at home against Mississippi State.

The Gamecocks and Bulldogs have their national championship rematch on Feb. 5 in Starkville, Mississippi. That comes four days after the Gamecocks host UConn. South Carolina is still looking for its first victory against the Huskies (0-5), but has beaten the Bulldogs 11 consecutive times.

South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson (SEC-leading 24.5 PPG, plus 11.2 RPG) continues to be the league's brightest star. But there are several of those. Including Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan (20.3 PPG, 12.5 RPG, SEC-best 66.8 FG percentage) and guard Victoria Vivians (19.8 PPG, career-best 54.0 FG percentage); Missouri guard Sophie Cunningham (18.2 PPG); Tennessee guard Jaime Nared (17.4 PPG) and center Mercedes Russell (16.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG); and probably the most exciting freshman in the country, Texas A&M's Chennedy Carter. She's averaging 21.2 PPG and 5.3 APG, and had 36 points in helping push South Carolina to the end in a 61-59 loss on Dec. 31 in the teams' SEC opener.

The Aggies might be the lowest-ranked of the SEC's current five teams in the AP poll, but nobody is sleeping on them.