Whether many college hoops critics like it or not, every part of the season is important in terms of building a résumé. But that doesn't mean there are not more essential portions of the campaign than others.
Conference play is where the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders and where the superstars separate themselves from the stars. Now that everyone is officially submerged in the second half of the season, we can start to learn the reality of most rosters.
So with that, welcome to another week on ESPN+, where the Big 12 grabs the top game of the week again and thrilling finishes should be expected.
1. No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks at Iowa State Cyclones (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
Hilton Coliseum is not a welcoming place for any highly ranked opponent, but especially for the Jayhawks, who have lost three of their past five in Ames.
Without Lindell Wigginton and Marial Shayok this season, Kansas will have to focus most of its attention on potential NBA lottery pick Tyrese Haliburton. The sophomore guard is long, athletic and versatile and has improved his greatest weakness coming into his second season -- his 3-point jumper. The 6-foot-5 talent is averaging 17.7 points, 7.9 assists and 6.3 rebounds to go along with shooting 42.5 percent from beyond the arc.
It will be interesting to see how Kansas opts to guard Haliburton. Will the Jayhawks use the smaller and quicker Devon Dotson to try to throw him off? Will they opt to use the taller Marcus Garrett or Ochai Agbaji? Or does Bill Self utilize a bunch of different defenders? Regardless, the environment should be raucous with the Cyclones searching to make their recent loss to Florida A&M a distant memory.
2. Saint Louis Billikens at Richmond Spiders (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET)
This will be a fascinating contrast as the Billikens rely on toughness, solid defense and elite rebounding, while the Spiders are more skilled offensively, thanks in part to leading scorer Blake Francis.
Saint Louis got off on the wrong foot to begin league play, but its upside as a sleeper in the Atlantic 10 is still high due to the presence of Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French. If coach Travis Ford can somehow find his two best players more consistent help, the Billikens could be in even better shape as they chase an NCAA tournament berth.
Richmond lost two in a row before diving into A-10 play, but overall, the Spiders have been a surprise. They have wins over Vanderbilt, Wisconsin, Boston College and a sneaky good mid-major, Charleston. With multiple options offensively and the home crowd behind them, this could be yet another quality win for Chris Mooney & Co.
3. East Tennessee State Buccaneers at UNC Greensboro Spartans (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)
This might legitimately be one of the better mid-major matchups of the year as both East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro are strong NCAA tournament contenders.
The Buccaneers are a well-rounded, skilled bunch, ranking in the top 65 nationally in points per game and points allowed. While the Spartans don't have nearly the experience of their opponent, junior Isaiah Miller has taken his game to another level.
With both teams 2-1 in league play, the winner of this showdown will be given a leg up in the SOCON title race, even with two months remaining in the regular season.
4. George Mason Patriots at La Salle Explorers (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET)
Beyond Dayton and VCU, the Atlantic 10 features teams with capable upsides and Cinderella potential, but no elite rosters. Even though this makes the league extremely difficult to figure out, it also gives us down-to-the-wire finishes, lots of parity and unexpected storylines.
The Patriots and the Explorers are a perfect example. George Mason already has 11 wins, but its best victory is arguably against Nebraska -- a program in a rebuilding year under Fred Hoiberg. La Salle has exceeded projections with nine early wins but was blown out by Penn and its résumé is led by victories over Wright State and Drexel on the road.
Both sides likely have boosted their win totals through weak nonconference schedules, making this game all the more important. While it looks even on paper, this matchup will tell us an awful lot about how good La Salle's guards are and how lockdown George Mason's defense truly is.
5. Vermont Catamounts at UMBC Retrievers (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)
A revenge game?
Vermont molded itself into a consistently tough mid-major program -- the Catamounts have averaged 26 wins over the past four years -- but UMBC has been the thorn in its side the past couple of seasons. In 2017-18, the Catamounts were stunned by the Retrievers in the America East tournament final on Jairus Lyles' winning 3-pointer with less than a second left. John Becker's bunch reached the Big Dance in 2018-19, but that was only after their at-large hopes were wiped away with two losses against their rival.
While Anthony Lamb & Co. got the best of UMBC in the most recent conference title game, that doesn't mean the Catamounts aren't ready for a satisfying win that could spark a run during league play.
6. Buffalo Bulls at Ball State Cardinals (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET)
This clash is a perfect opportunity to see if Buffalo -- which came into the season as the favorite to reach the postseason out of the MAC -- has officially turned the corner under new head coach Jim Whitesell.
Losses to Dartmouth and Army dimmed the Bulls' outlook, but they've won three of their past four thanks to the recent success of Jayvon Graves and Davonta Jordan. Even sophomore forward Jeenathan Williams has stepped up, scoring in double figures in his past five outings.
On the flip side, Ball State has seven upperclassmen, including leading scorer Ishmael El-Amin, big man Tahjai Teague and the uber efficient Kyle Mallers. The Cardinals shouldn't be overlooked in this scenario, so expect the Bulls to bring their A-game in order to capitalize on one of their few chances to earn a quality win for the remainder of the season.
7. Jacksonville Dolphins at Liberty Flames (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET)
Liberty doesn't win pretty. In fact, a majority of its games are ugly -- almost like the Virginia of mid-major hoops if you want to call it that. The 16-1 Flames have allowed just two opponents to score more than 50 points this season and are second in the country in points allowed (50.9). They play low-possession games while ranking just 267th in the country in points per game (69.0).
Regardless of all the numbers, the Flames play hard and feature two strong leaders in Caleb Homesley and Scottie James. Homesley is capable of popping off for 25 points, using his efficiency and 3-point shooting, while James tends to make an impact in every facet of the game.
The Flames are just a darn good basketball team and that will make them a nuisance to play in March. Don't miss a chance to watch one of the better mid-majors take the court.
8. Bradley Braves at Evansville Purple Aces (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)
Another intriguing mid-major matchup takes center stage this week as Bradley continues to deal with the absence of leading scorer Eljiah Childs, while Evansville looks to right the ship after coming back to reality following its stunning upset over Kentucky.
The Braves have somehow gotten by without Childs due to Darrell Brown and Nate Kennell, but this will be a stiff test on the road against a strong opponent. Their first game away from home without Childs resulted in a disappointing, ugly 14-point defeat at the hands of Miami (Ohio).
The Purple Aces have lost three of their past four and need to find a way to keep DeAndre Williams out of foul trouble. Limiting turnovers will be another key as the team can ill afford to drop their third straight Missouri Valley game.
9. Northern Iowa Panthers at Missouri State Bears (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)
Sticking with the MVC, Northern Iowa and Missouri State face off in a contest between teams picked to finish third and first, respectively, in the preseason coaches' poll.
UNI has certainly lived up to expectations -- and then some -- this season, upsetting No. 24 Colorado and South Carolina while playing a close affair against West Virginia. AJ Green has continued to put up elite scoring numbers and the Panthers' depth and discipline is again flourishing under Ben Jacobson.
Meanwhile, the Bears are only 7-8, but they certainly aren't sitting in a poor position as they've been tested with games against Xavier, Miami and LSU. They also feature solid balance and experience, led by senior Keandre Cook and transfers from West Virginia and South Florida.
Who will have the upper hand in the league standings after a showdown in Springfield, Missouri?
10. Furman Paladins at Chattanooga Mocs (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)
There always seems to be an underrated superstar who makes this list every week. In Week 10, it's Jordan Lyons, the 5-11 senior who gets buckets in bunches for the Paladins. Lyons dropped 40 on VMI and hit a ridiculous 10 of 12 3-pointers in 35 minutes. Before that, he lit up Mercer and Winthrop for a combined 49 points.
Furman's latest task comes in the form of Chattanooga, an improving unit with high-level transfers.
Matt Ryan, a sharp-shooter from Notre Dame, and Ramon Vila, a talented center from Barcelona, Spain, who played at Arizona State, highlight the group. But David Jean-Baptiste is the true leader of the roster. The junior has played three years with the Mocs and could be counted on to guard Lyons for long stretches. How he handles the task will likely decide if Chattanooga can pull off an upset.