Nonconference play is inching to a close as most leagues will be submerged in their slate by the time the new year rolls around. Those early-season tournament opportunities and chances to impress the committee against unfamiliar opponents will be a thing of the past. But that doesn't mean this week is lacking critical matchups, especially on ESPN+.
An SEC school looking to avoid an upset, three programs that previously pulled off shocking upsets in the NCAA tournament and an Ivy League squad that continues to drastically improve will be featured on ESPN's streaming service.
1. North Texas Mean Green at No. 14 Dayton Flyers (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET)
The Obi Toppin train rolls on as the National Player of the Year candidate and the Flyers host a North Texas team that is coming off three consecutive impressive showings against UT Arlington, Oklahoma and Little Rock.
The Mean Green feature a talented point guard in Umoja Gibson, who averages 15.8 points, but the key to this game will be how North Texas defends Toppin. If coach Grant McCasland's team has any chance of pulling off the upset, it must contain the sophomore big despite its limited size up front -- only one player over 6-foot-8 -- and must greatly surpass its season average on the boards (34.1 RPG).
Regardless of how competitive the road team is, Dayton's combination of offensive fluidity and its superstar makes the Flyers must-see television.
2. Saint Louis Billikens at Kansas State Wildcats (Sprint Center, Kansas City, Missouri) (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
As we've repeated in this space all season, it's going to take awhile for Kansas State to figure itself out as the Wildcats replace Dean Wade and both starters in the backcourt. The Wildcats have struggled in their biggest nonconference games so far, but they have a prime opportunity to earn a quality win against an emerging Atlantic 10 school.
The Billikens are 8-2 with a roster tailored around bruisers and physical play. While Saint Louis shoots the ball efficiently from the field, it plays best when it locks down on defense and relies on its strength on the glass. At 6-foot-3, Jordan Goodwin is averaging 11 rebounds, while Hasahn French makes a living under the basket.
With Bruce Weber's team expected to match the defensive intensity, expect a hard-fought matchup that results in a 40-minute battle.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide at Samford Bulldogs (Legacy Arena at BJCC in Birmingham, Alabama) (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Checking on the progress of first-year head coach Nate Oats is an intriguing reason to watch this matchup, but there is nothing more compelling than the presence of inconsistent talents like John Petty and Kira Lewis Jr.
With unlimited range and an ability to create his own shot in a heartbeat, Petty, a junior guard, has pro potential. He can either show out and drop 30 -- like he did against Iowa State with 34 points on six 3s -- or he can hurt Alabama with inefficiency like he managed to do against both Penn and Rhode Island. Lewis' production is much more stable -- he's the team's leading scorer and has put up double figures in seven of Alabama's nine games; however, he needed 23 shots to score 20 points vs. UNC and tends to turn the ball over too much.
Alabama can ill afford to overlook Samford. So which Petty and Lewis will show up? We will find out soon in Birmingham.
4. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Rhode Island Rams (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET)
Losing NBA prospect Charles Bassey (knee) for the remainder of the season is a monumental loss, but Western Kentucky is still an experienced group with gifted guards who could give Rhode Island a run for its money.
That backcourt -- Taveion Hollingsworth, Camron Justice and Jared Savage -- will have the task of facing 5-foot-10 PG Fatts Russell. The junior was already a fan favorite due to his unique name and fearlessness, but is beginning to make himself into a Kingston legend by averaging 21.4 points and 5.2 assists despite his small stature.
If you like elite guard play, this is the game for you as Russell isn't alone in the Rams' backcourt. Jeff Dowtin doesn't have the flash of his counterpart, but he is a steady presence and a strong defender, making this a battle of the backcourts at the Ryan Center.
5. Davidson Wildcats at Loyola Chicago Ramblers (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET)
It seems like it was only yesterday when Loyola Chicago put on Cinderella's slipper by reaching the 2018 NCAA tournament Final Four. But the Ramblers played in the NIT last season and have started this new campaign in disappointing fashion.
Coach Porter Moser's group still sports do-it-all big Cameron Krutwig and has skilled juniors like Lucas Williamson and Tate Hall, but Loyola dropped games to Coppin State, South Florida and Furman in the first month.
Things don't get any easier for the MVC representative as the Ramblers face Kellan Grady and the Wildcats. Davidson is looking to finally find its own rhythm after a bumpy start to a season with high expectations, so this is a showdown between two squads with a lot on the line.
6. UNC Greensboro Spartans at Vermont Catamounts (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)
Between injuries and poor 3-point shooting, Vermont has gone through a rough stretch consisting of four losses in its past seven games. While three of those affairs were on the road against potential NCAA tournament teams, the Catamounts' schedule doesn't lighten up as they host UNC Greensboro.
The Spartans won five straight, including a four-point win at Georgetown and a two-point victory at Radford, before suffering a defeat at the hands of NC State. Their feisty defense will likely be a nuisance for mid-major star Anthony Lamb, who is shooting just 26% from the field in his past five outings.
How Lamb deals with the pressure defense and if the Catamounts can finally find their range from beyond the arc will be the two storylines to keep an eye on in Burlington.
7. UMBC Retrievers at George Mason Patriots (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)
Want two more Cinderellas? UMBC and George Mason certainly have played the part before.
Fast-forward to 2019 and the Retrievers are in transition mode, while the Patriots have been surprisingly impressive through mid-December. With just three players left from the 2017-18 team that stunned No. 1 Virginia, UMBC sits at 6-6 and has greatly missed its leading scorer, 5-foot-2 point guard Darnell Rogers, who is injured. Meanwhile, George Mason was projected to finish ninth in the A-10 preseason coaches' poll but instead has rarely been challenged, other than its one loss to Maryland.
The Patriots cannot afford to drop this one at home with future bubble aspirations on their mind and a six-game winning streak in sight before a tell-all matchup vs. TCU.
8. Harvard Crimson at George Washington Colonials (Saturday, Noon ET)
The trajectory continues to point upward in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as Harvard has impressed since the return of Bryce Aiken. The Crimson defeated Texas A&M, took Maryland to the wire and pounded UMass, despite a solid night from Tre Mitchell.
This all continues to come without arguably their best player in Seth Towns, who remains injured and hasn't played in a regular-season game since March of 2018. That's what makes Tommy Amaker's group special. Every night a different player steps up. Aiken has been the constant, but five players have led the team in scoring this season, including freshman Chris Ledlum.
While George Washington has struggled, Harvard can still build its résumé by winning a buy game against an Atlantic 10 school. If the Crimson ever do get Towns back, the high seeds in the Big Dance will be dreading a potential draw with this Ivy League competitor.
9. Murray State Racers at Evansville Purple Aces (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET)
An even matchup between two mid-majors with breakthrough stars? Check.
Murray State doesn't feature Ja Morant anymore, but it certainly has a lethal scorer in Tevin Brown. The sophomore guard has boosted his scoring average to 16.2 points and is shooting more efficiently from the field. While Evansville has seen Kansas transfer Sam Cunliffe and K.J. Riley lead the team in scoring, DeAndre Williams has played out of his mind the past three games, putting up 80 points and grabbing 31 rebounds.
Brown and Williams won't go head-to-head; however, the Racers and Purple Aces are two schools that will be talked about all season at the mid-major level because of pedigree and a monster upset, respectively.
10. Marshall Thundering Herd at Northern Iowa Panthers (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET)
There hasn't been enough conversation about Northern Iowa despite its 10-1 record and victory on the road at Colorado.
The Panthers have special guard play -- featuring AJ Green and Trae Berhow -- and strong depth. They are smooth offensively and, like always, they maintain discipline defensively (allowing just 62.2 PPG this season).
While Jon Elmore is not walking through the door for Marshall, this is a chance to catch the Thundering Herd's opponent, an under-the-radar unit that could make noise in Missouri Valley Conference play and in the lead-up to March.