The safety net has been removed from under the Central California Conference teams.
The 15-game conference schedule that has been used since Los Banos departed the CCC has been scrapped. Instead, it will be a 10-game sprint to the title that tips off this week for the boys and the girls.
"Now every game is really important," said Buhach Colony girls coach Shane Gentry. "Last year, we had three chances against every team. Now you have to make sure you're playing well in every game."
Gentry's Thunder (12-5) are the favorites to repeat as CCC champs. Buhach Colony is once again led by its guard duo of Jessica Silva and Allison Wisdom. The Thunder will open conference play tonight at Pitman.
The Thunder's main competition appears to be Merced (11-5), despite the Bears' roster having just seven players.
Merced does have reigning CCC MVP Dalonna Jones and one of the best all-around players in Tekerra Borden, who has scored 41 points in her last two games.
Freshman guard Lexi Thompson has also played well for the Bears, who host Atwater tonight.
On the boys side, it could be a similar two-team race between Buhach Colony (12-5) and Golden Valley (13-4).
However, the gap between the top two teams and the rest of the conference doesn't appear to be as big on the boys' side.
The Thunder have played a tough schedule with tournaments in Las Vegas, Woodland and Oakley.
Buhach Colony point guard Joe Marquez could pull off the rare double feat of winning the CCC MVP in football and basketball.
Marquez is averaging 19.5 points per game, including a 41-point outburst in a loss to Roseville on Dec. 15.
Fellow senior Roger Klauser is averaging 15.4 points. The Thunder will open on Wednesday night at home against Pitman.
Golden Valley is young, but many of its key players played significant roles on the Cougars' CCC title team last year.
Six-foot-6 junior Josh Sykes is averaging 11 points, 11 rebounds and just under four blocks per game.
Junior guards Christian Carroll (13.1 points) and Evan Stillahn (12.4 points) lead the Cougars in scoring.
Golden Valley hosts Turlock on Wednesday night.
"We were able to make some mistakes last year and still win league," Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter said. "I don't think that can happen this year. You've got to be ready to play every night.
"For us, I feel we're good enough to win league. We have a good record. We've played some good teams. I think we're good enough to beat anybody, but we're also good enough to lose to anybody."
Atwater, which is led by junior Ben Peterson (16.6 points), and Merced, which will lean heavily on Travante Richard, both played the Cougars tough earlier this season in the Modesto City Classic.