The first full weekend of Montana's high school basketball season is upon us, and, boy, is this weekend's slate going to be phenomenal. Granted, this season is going to be quite different than anything we've seen due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
However, that doesn't make these games any less intriguing and important. With teams jamming 18 games into the two months after Christmas, it's an all-out sprint to the finish line with teams playing more than twice per week.
While this is the first full weekend of hoops, several teams around the state played games on Saturday and Tuesday.
For the first time in Montana high school basketball history, co-champions were crowned last March. Instead of eight returning champions, there are 16 this year across the four classifications.
Missoula Hellgate and Billings Skyview split the Class AA boys championship last year, but the Knights could be in for a relatively down year. Hellgate will open up at home on Thursday, as will Skyview. Class AA girls co-champions Helena Capital and Billings West open up their title defenses at home on Thursday night.
Hardin and Butte Central are the defending boys co-champions in Class A, but both could struggle out of the gates. The Hardin girls were also named co-champions along with rival Bilings Central. I'm interested to see how both Hardin teams fare this weekend. Will the Eastern A be the dominant conference again in 2021? We know Central is going to be a juggernaut again.
The Lodge Grass boys may be the most likely team of all returning champions to repeat. The Indians bring back almost their entire roster, including Damon Gros Ventre and Ty Moccasin. Lodge Grass will get a big early season test against Huntley Project on Friday night, though. The Indians' Friday opponent has a huge showdown on Thursday night, too.
The Southern B girls is going to be a dogfight every night this season, as Big Timber and Forsyth, will likely be strong again. We're going to get an early look at Forsyth against its top competition in District 3B on Thursday night. Two of the best in District 4B will battle in Roundup on Friday night.
Let's not forget about the co-champion alongside Forsyth, Missoula Loyola. The Breakers are loaded once again and led by Lani Walker, daughter of head coach Travis Walker. Loyola is already 2-0 this year.
The Eastern C has been among the strongest divisions in Class C boys basketball over the past several years, and that doesn't seem likely to change in 2021. Defending co-champion Scobey will be the early favorite, but don't overlook Froid-Medicine Lake. The Redhawks get their season started at home on Thursday night. Chinook should be strong in the Northern C and will play a big game against Big Sandy Saturday.
Roy-Winifred and Belt were set to meet for the State C girls title but had to settle for a co-championship. The Outlaws will likely be in the conversation again this season behind Madeline and Isabelle Heggem, but the loss of guard Laynee Elness shouldn't be overstated. Melstone and Ekalaka, which both appeared at the State C tournament last year, will likely be in the mix in the Southern C again. Supremacy in District 4C is up for grabs on Thursday night.
It's a jam-packed schedule on the hardwood. Here's what I'll have my eye on this weekend.
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- Defending Class AA co-champion Missoula Hellgate is going to have to replace some serious pieces from last year's team. Two-time Montana Gatorade player of the year Rollie Worster is now logging minutes at Utah State and dominant low-post presence Abe Johnson is at Army. Beckett Arthur is a returning honorable mention all-conference pick and the senior will likely be the leader for Hellgate. The new-look Knights will host Helena High on Thursday night. What will Hellgate look like in 2021?
- Billings Skyview was Class AA's other co-champion and should have a solid team again this year. The Falcons are loaded with seniors but graduated one of the state's top athletes in Julius Mims. Skyview will host Bozeman Gallatin on Thursday night to open its season. What will Gallatin look like in its inaugural season? Is Skyview still among the Eastern AA's best?
- Hardin was the favorite to come out on top at the State A tournament prior to its cancellation, but the Bulldogs are going to have a ton of work ahead of them after losing the bulk of their roster, including Famous Left Hand and Trae Hugs. Hardin will host Havre on Saturday night. Can Havre and Kellen Detrick contend in the Eastern A? Just how far is the dropoff for Hardin in 2021?
- Billings Central already has two games under its belt with victories over Sidney and Livingston. The Rams bring back almost their entire roster, but the addition of Clarence Stewart could be the difference-maker. Stewart was a star at Plenty Coups but will enjoy his senior year at Central. The Rams have a trip to Wyoming this weekend where they'll take on Sheridan and Buffalo. I'm intrigued to see Stewart's impact on Central as the season progresses.
- All eyes in Class B will be on Lodge Grass. The Indians were poised to claim their first State B title since the days of Elvis Old Bull before the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to that. Lodge Grass is likely the favorite in Class B, as the Indians are absolutely loaded. Lodge Grass lost just one game last year -- a double-digit defeat at Huntley Project. The Indians will get a chance to make that right on Friday night when they visit the Red Devils in one of the most anticipated Class B regular-season matchups of the year. Don't be surprised if you see these two teams playing on Saturday night of the divisional and state tournaments. They have all the pieces to do so.
- Speaking of Huntley Project, the Red Devils defeated Red Lodge on Saturday, 58-43, to open their season. Project's Noah Bouchard went for 29 points and 13 rebounds. You'll potentially see lines like that from Bouchard all season, as the 6-foot-7 forward is blessed with a tremendous all-around skill set. Project has a big test on Thursday ahead of its game with Lodge Grass, though, as the Red Devils will host District 4B rival Columbus, which will be in the hunt for a district title in February.
- Froid-Medicine Lake finished fourth in the Eastern C last year, but the Redhawks are bringing back Colt and Bode Miller, Mason Dethman and Javon Nesbitt, which will put them in contention with the state's best, including Eastern C foe Scobey. Froid-Medicine Lake will host Plentywood on Thursday. The Redhawks opened their season Saturday against Culbertson with a dominant 71-35 victory. Keep your eyes on the 6-Man football state champs. They're going to make some noise on the hardwood, too.
- Chinook's Ethan Bell is one of the best scorers in Class C, as evidenced by his 31-point outburst against Class B Harlem. Chinook is among the teams expected to compete for a State C title in 2021, but the Sugarbeeters have to get through the gauntlet that is the Northern C. Up first? Chinook hosts Big Sandy on Saturday. Fort Benton could be the toughest test for Chinook, but Big Sandy is no slouch, either. The Pioneers finished third in District 9C last year and unseating Chinook would be a step forward.
- Helena Capital should be the favorite to repeat in Class AA, as the Bruins bring back the Bartsch twins to anchor the frontcourt. Their mix of size and athleticism makes them an extremely difficult matchup for any team. Capital will host Butte on Thursday night but then it will head to Hellgate on Saturday. Hellgate is one of the more intriguing Class AA girls teams. The Knights came on red hot down the stretch last year. Can Hellgate carry forward that momentum and unseat the Western AA's best?
- Billings West isn't going to be a senior-laden this year, but the Golden Bears should be quite deep and will likely play an uptempo style in 2021. West doesn't have quite as many practices as other teams around the state due to contact tracing in early December, but they'll have enough practices to play on Thursday at Bozeman. After losing seven seniors off last year's team, how will West look? Charlie Johnson has a history of winning, so don't expect anything different for the Bears this year.
- Hardin's girls split the 2020 Class A state championship with rival Billings Central, but 2021 could be a bit of an uphill climb for the Bulldogs. Hardin will need to replace all-state selections Ivery Fritzler, Marie Five and Sossity Spotted Wolf. Junior Kamber Good Luck is the only returning all-conference pick and will likely be leaned upon heavily to create offensively. Hardin will play Havre on the road on Saturday. Counting last year, Hardin has made four consecutive trips to the State A title game. Havre beat Hardin in 2018 and 2019 for the state championships.
- What will the Western A look like in 2021? Browning and Columbia Falls controlled the Northwest A in 2020 and I wouldn't be surprised to see much of the same again this season. Both the Indians and Wildkats return three all-conference selections from last year's teams. Columbia Falls will play Libby and Polson this week, while Browning will play Libby. Libby and Polson finished on the bottom of the Northwest A in 2020.
- The Southern B is going to be brutal this year. All three districts have multiple teams that are capable of representing the Southern B at the state tournament. District 3B will get a glimpse at its perceived top two teams on Thursday night when defending Southern B champion Colstrip visits defending co-state champion Forsyth. Both teams lost starters off last year's teams, but Colstrip brings back several key contributors and Forsyth has the most dominant post presence in the state in Lindsey Hein. If there were no spectator restrictions, I'd recommend everyone get out to Forsyth for what is sure to be a thrilling show on Thursday night.
- Co-state champion Missoula Loyola is off to a 2-0 start this year with wins over Stevensville and Eureka. The Breakers should be the favorites in the Western B once again. Loyola will travel to Anaconda on Saturday night in big District 6B game. Anaconda finished the 2020 regular season with just two losses in conference play, both against Loyola.
- The Southern C's top two teams both came out of District 4C -- Melstone and Ekalaka. Ekalaka beat Melstone in the Southern C divisional title game for the only time in their four meetings. Both the Broncs and Bulldogs should be dominant throughout the regular season again, though Thursday will likely be the exception. Melstone will travel to Ekalaka to face the Bulldogs in a battle of the Southern C's best. Ekalaka lost a pair of LaBree sisters but sophomore Heidi is back to lead the squad. Melstone still has Draya Wacker, just a junior, who is one of the state's most explosive offensive weapons, regardless of class.
- Froid-Medicine Lake and Plentywood have been contenders in the Eastern C for several years, and that will likely be the case again this season. The Redhawks are led by Fresno State commit Sydney Dethman, while Liv Wangerin is back in orange for Plentywood. The two meet in Medicine Lake on Thursday in what could help decide the regular-season conference champ later this year.