Montana’s high school basketball state tournaments kick off as early as Wednesday afternoon, as the State C boys will be the lone show in action that day with the seven other tournaments beginning on Thursday.
The Bozeman, Billings Central and Manhattan Christian boys teams are back at their respective state tournaments to defend state championships, while the two-time champion Havre girls are the only returning girls champion to qualify for their state tournament.
In this week’s edition, I’ll discuss my favorite in each classification for boys and girls, their possible path to a title, and I’ll highlight what I expect to be the best first-round game in each tournament.
Favorite: Missoula Hellgate. Hellgate is the only unbeaten team in Class AA this season and the Knights have done it in pretty dominant fashion. With Rollie Worster, Camdyn LaRance and Abe Johnson, Hellgate has three go-to options on the offensive end. Hellgate will get Bozeman in the opening round and will have a chance to avenge last year’s heartbreaking defeat in the State AA title game right away at this year’s state tournament. We could potentially get a Billings West vs. Missoula Hellgate semifinal after West lost to Billings Skyview in the Eastern AA title game. West and Hellgate have been atop their respective conferences all season. As good as West, Skyview, Helena Capital and Missoula Sentinel have been this year, I don’t think anyone is touching Hellgate.
Best first-round game: Billings West vs. Missoula Sentinel. West made its path to the title game more difficult by falling to Billings Skyview in the Eastern AA title game. Sentinel was strong in the Western AA during the regular season and will be a tough out for West. Alex Germer has been a matchup nightmare for opponents this year, and the Golden Bears will have their hands full defending Sentinel's talented junior.
Favorite: Hardin. The Bulldogs are Class A's only unbeaten team to this point. Hardin had a couple close calls during the regular season against Livingston and Billings Central, but it put the hammer down at the Eastern A divisional tournament and claimed the Eastern A's top spot. Hardin has Polson in the first round and a potential meeting with either Frenchtown or Livingston in the semifinals. The Bulldogs have been to back-to-back State A title games, winning over Billings Central in 2018 and losing to the Rams in 2019. Famous Lefthand had an injury scare in the divisional title game, but if he's 100 percent for the state tournament I have no doubt that Hardin will be hoisting the state championship trophy on Saturday night.
Best first-round game: Frenchtown vs. Livingston. Frenchtown finished the regular season as one of the Western A's hottest teams before falling in the divisional title game to Browning. The Broncs will have their hands full with Livingston and talented senior guard Brendon Johnson. Between Johnson and Frenchtown's Cade Baker, two of Class A's premier offensive talents will be on display at 9 a.m. on Thursday morning to open the State A tournament. Livingston knocked Frenchtown out of last year's state tournament, so you can bet the Broncs are seeking revenge.
Favorite: Lodge Grass. The Indians lost just one game to a Class B opponent this season – a 15-point loss at Huntley Project in February. Lodge Grass has been on cruise control since that game, winning the District 3B and Southern B divisional tournaments on its way to a top seed at the state tournament. Lodge Grass will have to take on Shelby in the first round, and the Coyotes could give the Indians trouble with their size. Shelby, however, has lost four times this season to Fairfield, which plays an up-and-down pace just like Lodge Grass. The Indians could see either Arlee or Rocky Boy in the semifinals. Arlee has been red hot of late, too. The rest of Class B might want to stop Lodge Grass this year, as the youthful Indians could dominate for the next couple seasons.
Best first-round game: Arlee vs. Rocky Boy. What a finish to the season for Arlee. No one has been hotter. The Warriors didn't win a single game in conference play, but they turned it up at the District 6B tournament and Western B divisional tournament to snag a No. 1 seed at the State B tournament. Rocky Boy claimed the third spot out of the Northern B in a wild divisional tournament. Two of the most raucous fan bases will likely pack the Butte Civic Center early for the 1:30 p.m. tip on Thursday afternoon.
Favorite: Manhattan Christian. Until someone knocks the Eagles off, they hold the mantle as the defending champion. Manhattan Christian hasn’t lost to a Class C team this year and even knocked Twin Bridges from the ranks of Class C’s unbeaten teams. Head coach Jeff Bellach has plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal once again, including Sam Leep, who set a Montana record with 14 3-pointers earlier this season. The Eagles will face Melstone in the first round after the Broncs rallied through the consolation bracket to win a challenge game at the Southern C divisional tournament. A potential semifinal matchup with Scobey could be the game of the weekend. The Spartans are one of Class C’s unbeatens and were phenomenal at the Eastern C divisional tournament.
Best first-round game: Fort Benton vs. Twin Bridges. These two teams have combined to lose just one game this year, as Twin Bridges fell in the Western C semifinals to Manhattan Christian before battling back around. Fort Benton was dominant all regular season up North and has the athletes and depth to make a run. Twin Bridges will be able to match up well with the Longhorns, as both teams feature great inside-out combos and are lethal in transition. These guys get under way on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., as Class C will be the only show on Wednesday afternoon.
Favorite: Helena Capital. The Bruins were Class AA's top team throughout much of the regular season and were excellent in their run to the Western AA title last weekend. Capital will get Billings Skyview in the opening round after the Falcons punched their ticket to the State AA tournament for the first time since 2001. Capital would then face either Great Falls CMR and shot-blocking machine Allie Olsen or Missoula Hellgate, which is the only team to beat Capital this season. Should things stay true to form, Capital and Billings West will be playing in Saturday's championship game. Capital and West met way back on Dec. 20 in Billings. The Bruins won that meeting 43-42.
Best first-round game: Great Falls CMR vs. Missoula Hellgate. The Western AA looked superior to the Eastern AA for much of the regular season, but Great Falls CMR played extremely well down the stretch. Hellgate has been a bit of a Jeckyll and Hyde team this year, but the Knights are oozing with potential. Allie Olsen will have to yet again anchor the Rustler defense to keep CMR in the game, but the Rustlers will need to find a way to keep pace with Hellgate offensively, too. In what could be an opening round of blowouts, this figures to be the tightest game.
Favorite: Hardin. I know, the Bulldogs didn’t win the Eastern A divisional tournament. However, Hardin has a potentially easier path than Eastern A champion Billings Central. Why? Two-time defending state champion Havre is on the same side of the bracket as the Rams. The Eastern A’s top teams seemed far superior to the Western A during the regular season, and I expect much of the same at the State A tournament. I believe Western A champion Corvallis will be the only Western A team to win in the opening round. Hardin will have to handle Browning in the opening round. The two teams met in the first round last year, too, with Hardin winning 71-29.
Best first-round game: Corvallis vs. Livingston. Corvallis shocked many when it won the Western A divisional title. The Blue Devils won 13 regular-season games, but they finished third in their conference. But it's who gets hot at the right time. Livingston is also playing its best basketball. After not winning a game in conference play the Rangers found their way to the State A tournament. I don't think any of the first three girls games at the State A tournament will be particularly close, but this has the potential to be one of the best games of the entire tournament.
Favorite: Missoula Loyola. The Breakers enter the State B tournament as the only unbeaten team in Class B after Big Timber's girls fell in the Southern B title game to Colstrip. Loyola will get a big test right away on Thursday morning against Harlem. Harlem was bounced from last year's state tournament in two games. The Wildcats were one of the Northern B's top teams all year. Should Loyola advance past Harlem, it's likely the Breakers will face Colstrip, which will potentially have the chance to unseat both Class B unbeatens in a three-game span. We won't get the Big Timber/Missoula Loyola semifinal matchup that I'd talked about throughout the season, but it's possible those two could meet for the title on Saturday night.
Best first-round game: Malta vs. Forsyth. Forsyth is a matchup problem for anyone. With 6-foot-6 junior Lindsey Hein patrolling the paint on defense, teams have struggled to score on the Dogies inside all year. Don't expect their first-round game with Malta to be much different on Thursday afternoon. Malta, though, can combat Forsyth's length inside with its excellent guard play. Forsyth was a regular-season conference champion but couldn't get over the hump at the district and divisional tournaments, while Malta has been playing its best basketball in the postseason. I wouldn't be surprised if this came down to the final possessions.
Favorite: Roy-Winifred. The Outlaws finished runner-up to Box Elder last year, and they bring back some weapons. MSU Billings commit Dyuani Boyce, guard Olivia Geer, who scored 22 points for the Outlaws in an opening-round win last year at the State C tournament, and Madeline Heggem. Add in Isabelle Heggem, a third 6-footer for Roy-Winifred, and Laynee Elness and the Outlaws have plenty of firepower to choose from. The Outlaws get Manhattan Christian in the opening round on Thursday afternoon. The Eagles are coming off a challenge game victory over West Yellowstone. Should Roy-Winifred advance, it will see either Ekalaka or Westby-Grenora. Westby-Grenora would have a better chance of matching up with Roy-Winifred's size, while Ekalaka's guards could give the Outlaws troubles. Don't be surprised if it's an all-Northern C final once again at the State C girls tournament.
Best first-round game: Scobey vs. Belt. What a dream matchup for basketball fans in the opening round. These two teams play fairly similar styles and love to shoot the ball from deep. Some of the best guard play in the State C tournament will be on display at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. Belt looks like it's regained its perennial championship form, while Scobey is making another appearance at the State C tournament behind Gracee Lekvold and Kortney Nelson. Expect a back-and-forth affair throughout this one, with the winner having a great shot at playing for a title Saturday night.