The regular-season game with the highest stakes in the coming weeks won't take place in Oregon. It has nothing to do with UConn and Tennessee. South Carolina isn't involved.
It will be played in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 18, when Lehigh hosts Patriot League rival Bucknell.
Unless it comes when Missouri State hosts Drake a week earlier in the Missouri Valley. Or maybe at the end of January in Abilene Christian's visit to Stephen F. Austin in the Southland.
There are a dozen more that might fit the bill. The point is that these are the games with the least margin for error over the next two months. They are the games between good teams that know they can't count on any favors come time to fill out the NCAA tournament bracket. That's just winter for a mid-major.
Baylor, UConn, Oregon and the rest will spend the next two months jockeying for position in the NCAA tournament. Most mid-majors are just trying to get there.
So which conference seasons have the highest stakes this time? We start by acknowledging that all regular seasons come with a caveat. Conference tournaments make the regular season less meaningful across the board. Tournaments aren't evil, mind you. The problem comes in attaching an enormous prize to the smallest possible sample size, and then frequently making matters even more arbitrary by playing on neutral courts.
But even if no team can book its place in the NCAA tournament in the regular season, some conferences stand out as particularly compelling. Not necessarily the best, mind you, but the most intriguing. Maybe it's the sheer quantity of contenders or the perks available to the regular-season champion. Whatever the case, these conferences promise entertainment in January and February.
Missouri Valley: Four teams are ranked in the top 51 of the RPI: Drake, Illinois State, Missouri State and Northern Iowa. RPI is a flawed measure, but even as a blunt instrument, it speaks to the quality of the league. Missouri State, currently No. 2 in the RPI and a No. 6 seed in Charlie Creme's latest bracket projection, has wiggle room but can't afford many slip-ups against a tough schedule that currently includes two more top-100 teams in Loyola and Southern Illinois. Basically, a whole lot of MVC games will be played between teams that suffer more for losses than they gain from wins. That's brutal, but it's compelling. The top two finishers get the small benefit of conference tournament openers against teams that played the previous day.
Patriot: In every respect a one-bid conference, the Patriot still has three teams in the top 100 of the RPI. Surprising Colgate leads the way, ahead of more familiar stalwarts Lehigh and Bucknell. Throw in American and Holy Cross and, even if the Red Raiders don't keep it up, there's likely to be a competitive race for first place. Then factor in that the Patriot is one of the few remaining leagues in which all tournament games are played on the higher seed's court.
Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast has lost four conference games in the past eight seasons, which admittedly might give most people misgivings about suggesting the upcoming A-Sun season will be a page-turner. But several factors are at work here that aren't true in the Colonial, MAC, Mountain West and other leagues that simply bundle regular-season champions into the quarterfinals along with everyone else. First, FGCU might end up as the national cut line on mid-major at-large bids. Right now, it probably has the résumé to get in if it doesn't get the automatic bid. It can probably even withstand one more loss. But more than that makes life tricky. Second, it's just possible that Liberty, North Alabama and North Florida are good enough that the Eagles won't coast to a title. Lastly, as in the Patriot League, higher seeds host in the conference tournament.
Ivy: The Ancient Eight was more fun before it caved and added a tournament in 2017, ending its run as the last league to reward its regular-season champion with an NCAA tournament bid. But the regular season isn't entirely irrelevant, especially this season. Only the top four teams make the tournament, which this year will be played at Harvard. Some years, four is plenty. But with Yale's recent win against North Carolina added to the mix, alongside preseason favorites Penn and Princeton and a Harvard team that already beat California, any sign of a fifth contender will make life interesting.
Now on to the rankings.
1. Gonzaga (12-1, 1-0 West Coast)
Gonzaga looked a little worse for the holidays this past weekend, down 26-12 at the end of the first quarter against Portland. For some context, its previous worst deficit in a quarter was a five-point margin against Stanford. But the Bulldogs rallied to win their WCC opener, which protected the No. 1 ranking earned with a convincing win against Missouri State on Dec. 20. That game was the first regular-season meeting between ranked teams in Gonzaga's arena. Previous ranking: 3
2. Florida Gulf Coast (13-2, 0-0 Atlantic Sun)
FGCU beating Duke at home isn't a stunner, not given the current state of each program. But the Eagles winning by 22 points and scoring 70 points in the final three quarters? That ought to turn a few heads. Nasrin Ulel and Davion Wingate outscored Duke on their own (57-56). That's especially good news for Ulel, the reigning Atlantic Sun player of the year who has struggled to find shooting consistency this season (39.7% overall, 28.3% from the 3-point line). Previous ranking: 4
3. Missouri State (9-2, 0-0 Missouri Valley)
A lot of things went wrong at Gonzaga. Season-long trends such as a lack of 3-point options and a degree of carelessness with possession proved costly on the night. But as much as anything, the game underscored why 6-foot-4 Emily Gartner is one of the more important mid-major post players. Gonzaga first took control when Gartner went to the bench with foul trouble in the first half and solidified that edge when fouls again sidelined her in the second. Now the first of two big games against Drake awaits on Jan. 10 in Springfield, Missouri. Previous ranking: 1
4. South Dakota (12-2, 1-0 Summit)
The Coyotes took their shot with a 73-60 loss at South Carolina just before Christmas, a game that was always more of an example of aspirational scheduling than wins against Creighton, Missouri, Ohio State and Utah (or Drake and Green Bay, for that matter). But a 58-point second half in the conference opener against Western Illinois, including 33 points in the fourth quarter, suggests South Dakota won't let the loss in Columbia linger. Previous ranking: 2
5. Princeton (12-1, 0-0 Ivy)
It's time for the annual tradition that is Princeton's quirky schedule. The Tigers will play just once between Dec. 30 and Jan. 30, as final exams take precedence. At least that lone game is a big one, the Ivy opener at preseason co-favorite Penn on Jan. 11 (in further quirkiness, Princeton won't play a conference home game until Feb. 7). Bella Alarie continues to come on strong, averaging 20.5 points and 12 rebounds in two wins in this ranking period. Previous ranking: 5
6. South Dakota State (9-6, 1-0 Summit)
The Jackrabbits got two pieces of good news during the ranking period. First, they went to Green Bay and won a game just before Christmas without leading scorers Myah Selland and Paiton Burckhard. Second, they got Burckhard back in time for the sophomore to total 21 points and nine rebounds in the conference opener at Omaha. This season has been plagued by injuries, but with Burckhard and freshman Tori Nelson, who was big at Green Bay, the future looks bright. Previous ranking: 10
7. James Madison (9-2, 0-0 Colonial)
This debut is probably overdue for a team that doesn't really have a bad result on its résumé and is 3-0 against the Big East. The Dukes began the week ranked 20th in the nation in field goal defense -- sixth among teams eligible for these rankings. Maryland and St. John's each made it to 44% against James Madison. No other opponent has cracked 40%. Previous ranking: Not ranked
8. Drake (8-4, 0-0 Missouri Valley)
So much about Drake is similar to a season ago. Becca Hittner and Sara Rhine are taking 39% of Drake's field goals this season. They took 42% a season ago. Their teammates are making 44% of their attempts, the same as the supporting cast did a season ago. The difference? Drake is shooting 31% from the 3-point line, down from 36%. What does that look like on the court? Drake cut a deficit at Iowa to two points on a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs missed their final six 3-point attempts and lost 79-67. Previous ranking: 8
9. Penn (8-1, 0-0 Ivy)
Strength of schedule is questionable for the Quakers. It hasn't been all cupcakes, but the slate pales compared to most of the teams ranked here -- and several who miss out. But at least Penn is putting up numbers. Two teams rank in the top 10 in both field goal defense and assist-to-turnover ratio, two very different statistics but two that reliably reflect overall value. One is Baylor. The other is Penn. Throw in one of the nation's impact freshmen in Kayla Padilla (19.4 PPG), and it lands a second Ivy League team on the list. Previous ranking: Not ranked
10. Western Kentucky (8-3, 0-0 Conference USA)
Western Kentucky hangs on to its place after both Central Michigan and Duquesne lost on the road Monday. Those results more than cancel out the Lady Toppers losing at Purdue in their final game of the calendar year. But this team will have every opportunity to determine its own fate in the next few weeks -- Rice, Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion are among the first five conference opponents, with only Middle Tennessee coming to Bowling Green, Kentucky, in that stretch. Previous ranking: 7
Fell out: Central Michigan, Duquesne