Which teams off to impressive starts are for real? Which of them still have prove their overall merit?

Conference play is finally here, which means we’ll soon separate the contenders from the frauds. Several major-conference teams play favorable non-conference schedules to inflate their records. Precious few play more than one true road game.

So which teams have the most to prove in conference play? Here are 10 that need to show us something, despite their impressive early-season records.

USC (13-0)

Kenpom.com Rating: 44
NCAA RPI: 13

The first two teams in the nation to 13 victories are UCLA (slight surprise) and USC (major surprise). The Trojans are off to their best start since 1971 when they were 16-0. Picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12, they entered the AP poll earlier this month and are currently No. 21.

How good is USC really? It has one quality victory: a 65-63 true road decision at Texas A&M and needed overtime to beat Wyoming, 94-92. Overall, the Trojans’ non-conference schedule was rated No. 253 by KenPom and they ranked only No. 44 in scoring margin.

The Trojans have overcome a knee injury to forward Bennie Boatwright, who has played only five games. They have four starters averaging in double figures and the one who isn’t – De’Anthony Melton – is averaging 9.8 points.

Next key game: Friday (Dec. 30) at Pac-12 favorite Oregon.

Maryland (13-1, 1-0 Big Ten)

Kenpom.com Rating: 54
NCAA RPI: 22

Maryland is one of the luckiest major-conference teams in the nation. They are 6-0 in games decided by six points or less. And it’s not exactly a murder’s row the Terrapins have faced in those games: American, Georgetown, Towson, Richmond, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

Maryland was ranked No. 25 in the preseason poll, keyed by Melo Trimble. And dropped out after its first game: an unimpressive 62-56 victory over American. The Terps hasn’t been ranked since but is lurking in the others receiving votes category. The Terrapins opened the season 7-0, then lost to Pittsburgh which then promptly lost to Duquesne.

Next key game: Jan. 10 at home against Indiana.

Minnesota (12-2, 0-1 Big Ten)

Kenpom.com Rating: 47
NCAA RPI: 8

Minnesota blew a 13-point lead at home and lost to banged-up Michigan State in overtime Tuesday night.

Few coaches needed a good season more than the 34-year-old Richard Pitino. He got a major-conference job at a young age and has had little to show for it over the past three seasons. Minnesota has made more news off the court than on court in recent years. This season, they have already eclipsed last year’s dumpster fire of 8-23.

Have the Golden Gophers finally turned the corner? Their record is highly suspicious: 11 home games, one neutral site game and one road game. They beat Vanderbilt 56-52 in Sioux Falls and lost at Florida State 75-67 – the Seminoles (12-1) are ranked No. 20. Defensively, Minnesota has been impressive. That effort has been keyed by Reggie Lynch, who is fifth in the nation in blocked shots (3.33 per game).

Next key game: Sunday (Jan. 1) at Purdue.

Rutgers (11-3, 0-1 Big Ten)

Kenpom.com Rating: 115
NCAA RPI: 80

Rutgers, off to its best start since 1975-76, played a terrible non-conference schedule. Both Kenpom.com and Sagarin.com ranked the slate sixth-worst in the nation. Excluding the season-opener against Division II Molloy, the combined record of its opponents was 64-81. Take out games against Miami (9-2) and Seton Hall (10-2), and the winning percentage on the non-conference slate plunges to .369.

When the Scarlet Knights did play somebody, they lost by double digits to Miami and Seton Hall. They were trailing at home late against Hartford before pulling out a 77-75 win on a go-ahead basket with six seconds left. Not surprisingly, Rutgers was blown out Tuesday night at Wisconsin. But it’s the first year for coach Steve Pikiell, so maybe things will be different.

Next key game: Jan. 4 at Michigan State.

Northwestern (12-2, 1-0)

Kenpom.com Rating: 43
NCAA RPI: 49

Is this the year Northwestern finally reaches the NCAA Tournament? That’s truly one of the most flabbergasting facts in modern college basketball history. How can a team in a major conference not get into the Tournament at least once? Even a sad-sack program like Rutgers has been to the NCAA six times. (Made it to the Final Four in 1976!)

Northwestern has played some decent teams: Butler (loss), Texas (win), Notre Dame (loss) and Dayton (win). The victory over Dayton is the best on its résumé. The Wildcats had one non-conference road game, playing Butler tough before losing on a buzzer-beater, 70-68. Tuesday night’s Big Ten opening win at Penn State was a good start. But caution: The Wildcats have gotten off to fast starts before – and then crumbled.

Next key game: Friday (Dec. 30) at Michigan State.

Seton Hall (10-2)

Kenpom.com Rating: 49
NCAA RPI: 32

Seton Hall was picked to finish fourth in the Big East. So far, the Pirates have enjoyed positive moments. They own a victory over then-No. 16 South Carolina, lost 81-76 against Florida and have a road win at Iowa. The win over South Carolina seems a little less impressive now that the Gamecocks have dropped out of the rankings.

Seton Hall is resilient, going 4-0 when trailing at halftime, including rallying from a 32-23 deficit against Rutgers to win 72-61. It is also 4-2 against teams from the Power 5 conferences. The Pirates are coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006, so they are probably legit.

Next key game: Wednesday (Dec. 28) at Creighton.

North Carolina St. (10-2)

Kenpom.com Rating: 58
NCAA RPI: 36

It’s hard to trust North Carolina State. The only good team that it has faced was Creighton and the Wolfpack lost, 112-94. The Wolfpack’s only road game was an 88-74 loss at Illinois. NC State is 8-0 at home, but almost lost to Georgia Southern at PNC Arena, winning 81-79. So what does that tell you?

NC State was picked to finish sixth in the loaded ACC. The Wolfpack has balanced scoring – five players averaging in double figures, led by Dennis Smith Jr. (18.9). The team had been without sophomore Maverick Rowan, who missed seven games due to a concussion.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.