BUTTE — It's one of the deepest and most dynamic assortments to gather at a State A boys basketball tournament in recent seasons.
One team has won 19 consecutive games. Another brought back four starters from its runner-up finish from last year. And one first-round matchup pits two squads with a combined 35 victories.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a distinct favorite as the tournament tips off Thursday at the Civic Center.
"You hate to pick a team to beat with a field like this," said Billings Central coach Shel Hanser. "But you have to point the finger at Dillon."
Laurel coach Pat Hansen concurred.
"Dillon has to be the favorite going in," Hansen said. "There's no question."
The Beavers, led by standouts Wes Knox and J.T. Linder, lost to Columbia Falls in last year's title game. But Knox and Linder are two of four returning starters from last season.
Linder twisted his ankle during Dillon's run to the Southwestern A title last weekend but expects to play. The Beavers (18-2) will face Polson (10-12) in the first round Thursday at 2 p.m.
Hansen's Locomotives, state champs in 2010, are fresh off their second consecutive Eastern A tournament title last weekend at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark. Laurel (16-4) plays Livingston (16-4) in the first round at 12:30 p.m.
Livingston is making its first state tournament appearance since 1996. The Rangers are a well-rounded team capable of scoring both inside and from the perimeter. Their guards are athletic and well-sized.
Dallas Lussier and Marcus Payne are the Rangers' leading scorers — both score better than 13 points per game. Decker Wilson also averages double figures.
"We're definitely going to have to get some pressure on the ball," Hansen said. "We're going to basically have to make quick decisions and quick adjustments, and try to limit their scoring.
"We don't want to make it a transition game — they're averaging 70 points a game with four kids scoring in double figures. And there are a lot of different ways they can score."
Laurel will look to senior point guard Bobby Anderson to dictate the tempo. Brett Thompson's ability to shoot well from the outside will also be a factor.
Central (12-8), which lost to Laurel in the divisional title game for the second consecutive year, will play red-hot Browning in Round 1. That game tips off at 8 p.m.
Browning has won 19 consecutive games, including a thriller in the Central A title game over Livingston last weekend. The Indians (19-1) were ranked No. 1 for most of the year. They have the ability to run 10 players deep, led by point guard Josiah Davis. DeeJay Lazyboy is Browning's top scorer, thought six players average better than 7 points per game.
Hanser expects a faster pace than that of the Eastern A championship game against Laurel.
"It'll be the complete opposite tenor of what was going on (last) Saturday night," Hanser said. "There will be a lot more flow to the game, and that benefits us. We struggled greatly with what was going on against Laurel. It's better for us to play more up-tempo.
"But it boils down to taking care of the basketball a little bit better. And it's always about defense and rebounding."
The Rams will again turn to leading scorers Ryan Burke and Daniel Meyer for strong point production.
The other first-round matchup pits defending state champion Columbia Falls (17-3) against Stevensville (18-3) at 6:30 p.m. It might be the best first-round matchup: Their combined 35 victories are the most of any Thursday pairing.
Columbia Falls is seeking its sixth appearance in the championship game — and its fourth state title — since 2005.