How big are games in November and December? What happens between Halloween and Christmas can make or break a season, and a resume can be ruined by letting too many nonconference games get away.
Now that the new year has turned and league competition takes over the basketball calendar, here is a look at some teams that exceeded their preseason expectations and set themselves up as NCAA tournament contenders -- and those that fell short and might have played themselves out of the tournament already.
Rutgers (14-2): The Scarlet Knights won just six games last season but have revived their program the last two months. They already are at 14 wins and have won nine consecutive games. Tyler Scaife's return after a medical redshirt season has been the biggest difference. The senior guard is averaging 21.6 points per game and is the glue in coach C. Vivian Stringer's 10-12 player rotation. Rutgers was nowhere near the NCAA tournament discussion in the preseason. Now it would take a major collapse for the Scarlet Knights to fall short of the field.
Villanova (11-1): The Wildcats were expected to compete in the upper third of the Big East, but did anyone really see an unbeaten nonconference run coming? Coach Harry Perretta's approach is working once again. Villanova is controlling the pace, taking good shots and wearing down opponents with precision. No one in the country commits fewer turnovers per game than the Wildcats, who also rank 11th in the country in scoring defense. A win over Duke and a schedule that avoids truly poor competition has vaulted Villanova into the top 10 in the RPI.
Oklahoma State (11-2): The Cowgirls weren't even among the top 50 teams in the preseason coaches' poll. They raised some eyebrows with competitive losses to Tennessee and Mississippi State, then landed firmly onto the NCAA tournament radar with an upset of UCLA. The well-traveled Loryn Goodwin has been the perfect addition to the backcourt and complements the inside play of Kaylee Jensen. Now a tournament without Oklahoma State is nearly impossible to picture.
Iowa (14-1): The Hawkeyes have the best overall record in the Big Ten and are one bucket against Florida State away from being undefeated. Junior post Megan Gustafson ranks in the top 10 nationally in points and rebounds per game and has so far helped Iowa survive the loss of point guard Tania Davis (knee injury) for a second straight season. The Hawkeyes look to be on their way back to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence.
Notre Dame (13-1): The Irish were fortunate when Jessica Shepard was granted immediate eligibility following her transfer from Nebraska, but that might have been Notre Dame's only piece of good luck. Injuries over the last eight months have cost the rotation three players, including All-American Brianna Turner. That has left Muffet McGraw with just six truly reliable players. The Irish also played seven consecutive games away from home and already faced 10 NCAA tournament-caliber teams. Yet Notre Dame still has the second-best resume in the country and has been the only team to push UConn to this point. Expectations are always high in South Bend, but the Irish have exceeded theirs the first two months of the season.
Stanford (8-6): Brittany McPhee's value cannot be understated and her return after missing nine games with a foot injury already seems to have made the Cardinal a new team. However, any Stanford team that goes 6-6 in nonconference play -- including noncompetitive matchups with Ohio State and Baylor and a home loss to Western Illinois -- is a letdown, regardless of personnel. The No. 8 seed the Cardinal have in this week's projection should get better, but is a result of a rough November/December.
Virginia (9-6): The Cavaliers were a borderline top-25 team in the preseason rankings. Then they went 7-6 in the nonconference schedule with nothing even resembling a quality win, save for maybe Indiana. Some injury issues contributed, but now the Cavaliers will have to significantly improve in ACC play to get back to the tournament for the first time since 2010.
Oklahoma (6-7): With three seniors in the starting lineup, a 6-7 record is unacceptable even if came against one of the nation's best schedules. Beating the teams it should during Big 12 play likely would get Oklahoma into the NCAA tournament by season's end, but right now, the Sooners aren't even a consideration.
Marquette (8-5): All five of the Golden Eagles' losses were to quality opponents, but five is still too many for a team bringing back four junior starters. Games against Tennessee, Notre Dame, Michigan and Green Bay should help Marquette late in the season, but losing all of these games put the Eagles in a seeding hole. They're a No. 9 seed in this week's projection.
Indiana (7-8): The Hoosiers have two preseason All-Big Ten players and were receiving votes in both the AP and coaches' polls to open the season. Then they went a mere 7-6 against a good nonconference schedule and opened the Big Ten with two losses.