Just two weekends separate us from the onset of district basketball tournaments across Montana.
The first full weekend of February presents several teams with the opportunity to make a move in the standings before the postseason begins.
Billings West’s boys sit atop the Eastern AA, but they’ll be tested at home over the weekend. The Golden Bears could hold a commanding lead of the conference by weekend’s end. Missoula Hellgate’s boys can make it a two-game gap in the Western AA. Hellgate’s girls, however, are trying to jump to the top of the conference, while the Billings West girls face the two teams directly below them in the Eastern AA.
Hardin’s boys have dominated in the Eastern A this season, but the division is quietly producing some stellar teams. We could find out the top challenger to Hardin. Hamilton will need another victory over a team with double-digit wins to stay atop its conference. The Hamilton girls can’t afford a loss, or their hopes of a regular-season title will be bleak.
Colstrip and Three Forks were at the State B boys tournament in 2019 and have had strong campaigns this year. Colstrip can lock up the No. 2 seed in its conference, while Three Forks is looking for another conference crown. Colstrip’s girls have a shot at the District 3B leader on Thursday night, while two teams in the Western B with double-digit wins will meet in a non-conference bout.
The top of District 14C is up for grabs on the boys side, while two of the Northern C’s top contenders will meet in a non-conference clash on Thursday evening. There are two teams still unbeaten in District 2C girls play, but by Saturday evening it’s guaranteed there will be just one. After back-to-back State C tournament appearances, Ekalaka’s girls could wind up entering the district tournament in fourth place.
That and more highlight what I’ll have my eye on as the season winds down.
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- Billings West is a perfect 5-0 in Eastern AA play this season and sits alone in first place. The Bears will have a test on Friday night, though, as second-place Great Falls High visits the Golden Dome. Great Falls High fell to Billings Skyview last weekend to fall behind West in the standings. The Bison play Bozeman on Saturday, and a pair of losses would potentially drop Great Falls High to fourth in the conference.
- Missoula Hellgate has had a stranglehold on the Western AA over the course of the past two season, but Helena Capital has a huge opportunity on Saturday night to hand the Knights a conference loss. Hellgate visits Capital Saturday night in a meeting between the top two teams in the conference. Hellgate handed Capital a 25-point defeat in Missoula back on Jan. 11, so the Bruins have quite the task ahead.
- The top of the Southwest A has been as good as any conference in Montana this year. There are three teams with 11-plus victories, and two of those will meet in Frenchtown on Thursday night. Hamilton leads the conference after beating Butte Central last weekend, but Frenchtown can turn the conference-title race into a cluster by handing Hamilton a loss. Both teams will likely be in contention for the Western A title.
- Hardin is Class A’s only unbeaten team, which has overshadowed the play of other teams in the Eastern A, Miles City and Billings Central in particular. Miles City is 9-4 this year and ran away with the Northeast A. Billings Central has stepped up as the No. 2 team in the Southeast A, meaning Miles City and Billings Central could potentially be battling for a spot in the Eastern A title game. Thursday could be a preview of that, as the Cowboys host the Rams in a late-season showdown between two of the Eastern A’s best.
- Three Forks has dominated District 5B in recent years, and this season has been no different. The Wolves are the only unbeaten team in the conference and have all but locked up the conference crown. One last test remains on Friday night, though, as Three Forks travels to second-place Manhattan. Manhattan needs a win to have any hope of pulling Three Forks back to the pack, but the Wolves look like they're primed for another run to the State B tournament.
- Colstrip is also making another run at the State B tournament, as the Colts sit second in what has been a competitive District 3B. Along with Lodge Grass, Colstrip and Lame Deer entered this week with double-digit victories. Lame Deer visits Colstrip on Saturday night with a chance to potentially leapfrog the Colts in the conference standings. Is Lame Deer the latest contender in what is shaping up to be a loaded Southern B field?
- Fort Benton appears to have separated itself as the top team in the Northern C, but the Longhorns will get a challenge from Denton-Geyser-Stanford on Thursday night, as the Bearcats are on the short list of teams capable of dethroning Fort Benton. DGS is in one of Class C’s most competitive districts, but if it can make its way to the divisional tournament it will be a tough out.
- Plains is in the conversation regarding the top teams in the Western C, as the Horsemen lead District 14C and are unbeaten in conference play. Plains will visit St. Regis on Friday night, and the Tigers have the conference’s top spot on their mind. St. Regis lost in Plains back on Jan. 9, 64-52, and it still represents the Tigers’ only loss. It’s likely these two teams will meet on Saturday night of the District 14C tournament.
- Helena Capital still reigns as Class AA’s only unbeaten girls team, but the Bruins hit the road Saturday for a date with Missoula Hellgate. Hellgate has just one loss this year – a six-point loss to the Bruins in Helena on Jan. 11. Hellgate’s regular-season conference title hopes rest on Saturday night’s game, as the Knights look to prove they’re capable of cutting down the nets in March.
- The Billings West girls have quite the weekend ahead of them. West enters the weekend in first place, but the Bears will visit second-place Great Falls High on Friday and third-place Great Falls CMR on Saturday. Both Great Falls High and CMR trail West by just one game in the Eastern AA standings. A weekend sweep for West would give the Bears at least a two-game cushion entering the season’s final weeks.
- Hardin has claimed the Southeast A, but Billings Central and Laurel are still in play for the second seed. Laurel visits Billings Central on Saturday night, as the Locomotives try to stay in the hunt with the two powerhouse teams in the conference. Central has been reeling a bit since its loss to Hardin, also falling to Billings West before beating Senior. In the doldrums before tournaments begin, this is the chance for Laurel to strike.
- Hamilton’s girls are just a game back of Dillon in the loss column for the lead in the Southwest A. The Broncs need to continue to win to have a shot at the regular-season title. Hamilton hosts third-place Frenchtown on Thursday night, as Frenchtown looks to play spoiler. Hamilton won by nearly 20 in the first meeting between the two back on Jan. 9, so Frenchtown will need to find answers for the Broncs, otherwise the conference will be decided next weekend against Dillon.
- The Missoula Loyola girls basketball team has been on cruise control this season, racking up 14 consecutive victories to open the year. Loyola will host 12-2 Thompson Falls on Thursday in a showdown of two of the Western B’s top teams. Thompson Falls is second in its conference due to a loss at Eureka in early January, but the Bluehawks can prove they’re a legitimate threat for the Class B girls crown by handing Loyola its first loss.
- Teams in the Eastern C have beaten up on each other to open the season. There are just two teams in District 2C still unbeaten in conference play, and they’ll meet up on Saturday. Froid-Medicine Lake will travel to Westby-Grenora, as the only two teams in the district with more than 10 wins will square off for first place. Along with Scobey, Westby-Grenora has proven it's one of the top dogs in the division. Is Froid-Medicine Lake on that same level?
- Ekalaka had high expectations entering this year coming off back-to-back Southern C divisional titles and State C tournament appearances. It hasn’t gone according to plan for the Bulldogs, as they sit fourth in District 4C entering the weekend. Ekalaka has a chance to make a move, though, as it plays Northern Cheyenne on Friday and Wibaux Saturday – the two teams directly ahead of it in the standings. Ekalaka can flip the script on its season with a pair of huge wins with the district tournament looming.