Want to watch the 2012 State A champion boys' basketball team play?
Then you might want to head to this weekend's Northwestern A-Southwestern A Tip-off tournament in the Flathead Valley. Teams that will be playing Friday and Saturday in Columbia Falls and Whitefish have won seven of the past nine Class A titles. In fact, Friday's marquee game in Columbia Falls at 8 p.m. will be a rematch of last year's state title game between Dillon and the host Wildcats. C. Falls came out on top of that game for its fourth state championship since 2003.
It looks like a case of the usual suspects in both leagues: Dillon and Stevensville look like the favorites in the south, and Columbia Falls and Polson are the picks of the league coaches in the north.
Here's a quick look at both leagues:
Dillon lost just one starter from its state runner-up team. All-state pick Wes Knox (12 ppg, 5 rpg), and all-league selections J.T. Linder (13 ppg) and Chevy Reed (8 ppg, 56 assists) return for veteran coach Terry Thomas, whose teams won titles in 2007 and '09.
"If I had a vote for preseason No. 1, I'd put Dillon No. 1," said Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg.
Stevensville, though, could have a lot to say about the league race. Keith Chambers, in his 21st season as Yellowjackets coach, has been likening his team to the Little Dribblers for the last several years. Not this year, though.
"We hope they've grown up this year," Chambers said. "That's something new and different for us here in Stevensville."
The Jackets have plenty experience in the likes of senior all-stater Josh Schultz, and classmates Tyler Gavlak, Austin Kelling and Josh Lords.
"For the first time we can match up fairly well either inside or outside," Chambers said. "We have a little more height this year, a presence inside; I'm excited about that. Then there's the maturity of the kids who have played for years."
Stevi opens with Bigfork and C. Falls in the Tip-off tournament, then faces Class AA teams Missoula Big Sky, Butte High and Missoula Sentinel before Christmas.
"We like it," Chambers said. "It's going to be a good first half of the season for us. You know where you're sitting and what you need to work on."
The best player in the conference, though, suits up just up Highway 93 from Stevensville in Corvallis: All-state pick Riley Bradshaw, a Utah State signee who plays for his father, 21st-year Blue Devil coach Dave Bradshaw.
"Who's that?" Chambers asked with a chuckle. "Never heard of the kid. He's probably one of the best players to ever come out of the valley, arguably, and the best player in the state, in my opinion. Utah State swoops him up out of the valley, so they must know a little bit of something."
Bradshaw will get help from returning all-league picks Colby Henderson and Beau Maus, both guards.
Fifth-year Hamilton coach Toby Stack returns four seniors - guards Brad Palin (all-league), Denny Hoselton and Eli Rogers, and 6-4 forward Seth Mason.
Any discussion of favorites in the north starts with the defending champion Wildcats, who lost leading scorer Nick Emerson - now a walk-on for the Montana Grizzlies - and banger Kaleb Johnson from the title team.
But the Wildcats return their second, third and fourth leading scorers from that club in Austin Barth, Parker Johnson and Anthony Correa.
"Austin has worked extremely hard, he's put on some weight and some muscle," Finberg said. "He's worked extremely hard at extending his game out to the perimeter. He's a tough matchup because he can go inside or outside."
Johnson swung between the wing and point guard positions last season and will do some of both again, although Ronny Gallegos will handle most of the duties at the point.
Correa was caught in a numbers crunch last season, swinging between JV and varsity.
"When Kaleb Johnson went down with that ACL injury at the state tournament, we knew we had a guy who could come in and replace him," Finberg said of Correa. "Anthony wasn't on the JV team because he was a JV player, we just had a lot of kids last year and he was caught in a numbers game. We knew we had a kid in the wings if we needed him.
"He's a slasher, 6-2, very athletic, very quick."
Finberg expects Polson to give his club a run for its money.
"They have some good kids coming back and they've been to state the last couple of years," Finberg said. "They have a very good program going down there."
The Pirates return three-year starters Tyler Krell, a 6-6 center who averaged 8.6 points and 4.9 rebounds a game, and Vince DiGiallonardo, a 6-1 guard who averaged 6.1 points and 3.0 assists per game. Junior guard Zach Camel started several games last season and 6-5 senior Cody Fischer saw time as well.
Whitefish returns all-conference forward Gage Vazquez (12.2 ppg) and junior guard Cooper Olson (32 3-pointers) to its starting lineup.
Frenchtown boasts five seniors, led by all-league pick Austin Blank, although as second-year coach Michael Botsford points out, "none of them has won more than two games in a season during their high school career.
"The players have worked hard since last year to improve and change the culture in the basketball program," Botsford said.
Libby lost all five starters from last season and returns just four lettermen. Sophomore guard Jared Winslow played as a freshman, as did seniors Micah Germany and Sawyer Zimmerman.