Malta coach Nate Hammond delivers a message to the M-ettes at the 2016 state tournament. (SLIM KIMMEL/MTN Sports)

Only half of Class B’s six divisional tournaments are this week – the Southern B boys and girls tournaments and the Northern B boys are next week – but there’s plenty of intrigue, including another potential addition to the Malta-Fairfield girls basketball rivalry.

Northern B

Girls

District 1B provided some unpredictability this year with nice teams at Choteau, Fairfield and Rocky Boy. The Eagles, who lost to Malta in last year’s state championship, came out of the district as the top seed, placing themselves on the opposite side of the bracket from the M-Ettes. Malta, the two-time defending champion, lost for the first time in three seasons earlier this year, but righted the ship to win the District 2B championship over Poplar. But Poplar and Wolf Point will pose challenges to the rest of the teams in the divisional tournament.

Best first-round game: Rocky Boy vs. Poplar. These two have proven they can be among the best teams in the state with Rocky Boy’s win over Choteau and Poplar’s win over Malta.

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Favorite: Malta. The M-Ettes received their wake-up call with the early loss to Poplar. They’re never out of a game with reigning Gatorade Player of the Year and future Montana Lady Grizzly Sophia Stiles.

Darkhorse: Choteau. The Bulldogs lost in the district championship, so they enter the divisional tournament as a strong No. 2 seed.

Western B

Boys

Two of the favorites to play on Saturday night at the state tournament reside in the Western B, but Bigfork and Missoula Loyola haven’t proven to be untouchable, especially against teams from District 6B. Anaconda and Florence both have regular-season wins over the favorites, and Deer Lodge has the ability to play with any team in the division.

Best first-round game: Bigfork vs. Florence. Florence doesn’t have the resume to stack up with the best teams in the division, but the Falcons do own a head-to-head win over Bigfork. They’ve played a ton of close games this season, so the Vikings might have to earn a closer-than-expected win in the first round.

Favorite: Bigfork. The Vikings haven’t lost to a Class B team in February – their last loss was at Missoula Loyola in January – and they’re a solid bet to get to the state tournament. If history is any indicator, Bigfork and Loyola are likely state tournament participants.

Darkhorse: Anaconda. We’ve seen the Copperheads play with – and beat – some of the best teams in the class over the past couple seasons. With Braxton Hill, they’ll always have a shot, especially if they bring consistent effort and discipline.

Girls

Ronan is one of two undefeated teams remaining in Class B – Colstrip is the other – and the Maidens are looking to improve on their 0-2 performance at last year’s state tournament. After a close call against Florence in the regular season, Ronan rolled through the District 6B tournament. District 7B was much more of a toss-up all season long, with three teams – Troy, Libby and Bigfork – battling at the top of the standings. Troy edged Bigfork for the championship and the district’s top seed for the divisional tournament. Seven of the eight teams in the field have .500-or-better records.

Best first-round game: Deer Lodge vs. Bigfork. There’s a ton of parity in the Western B bracket, so the only game not under consideration here is Ronan-Libby.

Favorite: Ronan. The Maidens have set out on a motivated mission this season, and the rest of the teams in the division will be hard-pressed to derail Ronan’s run.

Darkhorse: Missoula Loyola. In a tournament with so much parity, it’s hard to settle on a darkhorse. Literally seven teams are in the running, so the biggest long shot is the only team with a sub-.500 record. But Loyola has shown strides of improvement over the second half of the season, playing in a bunch of close games, including a nine-point loss to Ronan at the district tournament.

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