The best and brightest of Class AA will descend on Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark this weekend for the combined boys and girls state basketball tournament, which tips off Thursday morning.
Local teams from Senior, Skyview and West, along with those from Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula are chasing championships. The Missoula Hellgate boys and Missoula Sentinel girls are the defending champions, and each has a shot to repeat.
Here’s what to look for:
TITLE ENCORE?: Missoula Hellgate’s Tres Tinkle came of age last year, winning MVP of the state tournament while leading the Knights to the title. Now a junior, Tinkle (21.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg) is one of the state’s most celebrated players. Can he lead Hellgate to a repeat?
ON FIRE: Losing in last year’s title game motivated Helena Capital, and it cruised to the Western AA title. The Bruins, coached by Guy Almquist, come in with a 19-1 record and on a 17-game winning streak. Their only loss was a five-point setback to Bozeman on Dec. 20.
BIG MAN’S GAME: Billings West is making its 12th consecutive tourney appearance. The Bears have one of the biggest front-lines of any team in the field with 6-foot-8 Danny Betcher, 6-7 Jared Samuelson, 6-6 Wilson Brott and 6-6 Jeremiah Cochran. West, the No. 1 team from the East, seeks its fourth title since 2007.
3 -- Number of Great Falls High players ranked in the Top 12 among AA scoring leaders, the most of any team. Brendan Howard ranks sixth at 18.4 points per game, while Lukas Vining is ninth at 15.4 and Matt Wyman is 12th at 15.1.
1.8 -- Seconds remaining when Skyview’s Kendal Manuel hit the game-winning shot to beat defending champion Missoula Hellgate 60-58 at the Falcons’ gym on Dec. 14. Skyview and Hellgate meet again in the first-round Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
4.8 -- Per-game assists average for Helena Capital guard Hunter Beto, which is tied for No. 1 in AA. The team-oriented Bruins, who made the championship game last season, average just under 16 assists per game.
Following are capsule looks at each team at the state tournament:
Billings Skyview Falcons
Record: 13-8 (No. 3 seed Eastern AA)
Last state title: None
Leaders: Points — Kendal Manuel, 21.8 ppg; Tre’von Strong, 10.6 ppg; Nolan McHugh, 10.4 ppg. Rebounds — McHugh, 6.6 rpg; Manuel, 5.2 rpg. Assists — Jacob Smyle, 2.4 apg. Steals — Manuel, 1.9 spg.
Notes: The Falcons won three of their last four games in the regular season to earn the No. 3 seed in the East, then outlasted Billings Senior 77-72 in overtime in the 3 vs. 6 playoff game. … Skyview ranks third in AA in scoring offense (63.2 ppg) and eighth in defense (58.2 ppg). … Manuel, a 6-foot-3 junior, is the leading scorer among players in the tournament, just ahead of Hellgate’s Tres Tinkle (21.1). … Skyview is in the state tournament for the sixth time in Toby Hill’s seven years as coach.
Billings West Golden Bears
Record: 16-4 (No. 1 seed Eastern AA)
Last state title: 2012
Leaders: Points — Jared Samuelson, 19.1 ppg; Danny Betcher, 14.8 ppg; Christian Kappel, 8.1 ppg; Jeremiah Cochran, 7.6 ppg. Rebounds — Cochran, 7.7 rpg; Betcher, 7.0 rpg; Samuelson, 6.8 rpg. Assists — Zach Funyak, 2.3 apg; Samuelson, 2.0 apg. Steals — Kappel, 1.7 spg.
Notes: The Golden Bears won their last three and seven of their last eight to claim the East’s automatic berth to state. … West starts four players 6-foot-6 or taller in seniors Wilson Brott (6-6), Cochran (6-6) and juniors Betcher (6-8) and Samuelson (6-7). … The Golden Bears rank second in AA in scoring offense (65.9 ppg) and seventh in defense (56.8 ppg). … West is in the state tournament for the 12th straight year.
Great Falls Bison
Record: 11-9 (No. 4 seed Eastern AA)
Last state title: 2006
Leaders: Points — Brendan Howard, 18.0 ppg; Matt Wyman, 15.5 ppg; Lukas Vining, 15.5 ppg. Rebounds — Howard, 10.2 rpg; Wyman 5.5 rpg; Vining, 5.1 rpg. Assists — Wyman, 4.2 apg. Steals — Bryce Clark, 2.4 spg.
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Notes: The young Bison feature a high-scoring trio that is led by 6-foot-3 Brendan Howard, one of the most productive ninth-graders in the Class AA boys ranks in some time. Juniors Matt Wyman and Lukas Vining both average 15.5 per game, making Great Falls the only AA boys team with three 15-ppg scorers. … The Bison are No. 1 in AA in scoring offense (66.1 ppg) and last in defense (66.5).
Great Falls CMR Rustlers
Record: 10-10 (No. 2 seed Eastern AA)
Last state title: 2010
Leaders: Points — Jayse McLean, 18.5 ppg; Andre Langhorne, 9.0 ppg; Andrew Grinde, 7.5 ppg. Rebounds — McLean, 8.2 rpg. Assists — Daekwon Carter, 2.9 apg; Karl Tucker, 2.8 apg. Steals — McLean, 2.1 spg.
Notes: The Rustlers lost three of their last four in the regular season, but still ended up with the No. 2 playoff seed and beat Butte 58-51 in the 2 vs. 7 playoff game. … McLean, a 6-foot-3 senior, led CMR in scoring in all but three games this season, including the last 11. … The Rustlers rank ninth in Class AA in scoring offense (59.0 ppg) and fifth in defense (55.5).
Record: 7-13 (No. 4 seed Western AA)
Last state title: 1991
Leaders: Points — McBride Galt, 9.5; Troy Arntson, 8.7; Tyler Tolman, 8.2. Rebounds — Henry Garrett, 6.1 rpg; Assists — Chase South, 3.2 apg. Steals — Arntson, 2.1 spg.
Notes: After losing five of their last six to end the regular season, the Bengals stunned Missoula Sentinel in the 3 vs. 6 playoff game to earn their first trip to the State AA since 2008. … Helena is the lone team in the AA boys field without a double-figures scorer. The Bengals rank 11th in AA in scoring offense (54.3 ppg) and 10th in defense (59.1).
Helena Capital Bruins
Record: 19-1 (No. 1 seed Western AA)
Last state title: 1983
Leaders: Points — Carson Dummer, 14.2 ppg; Kyle Harrington, 12.0 ppg; Kyle Nickol, 11.3 ppg. Rebounds — Dummer, 9.9 rpg; Jason Corne, 4.0 rpg. Assists — Hunter Beto, 4.8 apg; Harrington, 3.6 apg. Steals — Harrington, 1.9 spg.
Notes: The Bruins have won 17 in a row since a 72-67 loss to Bozeman on Jan. 2. … Capital is No. 1 in Class AA in scoring defense (44.8 ppg) and has not allowed an opponent to score 50 points since Hellgate on Jan. 9. … The Bruins’ trio of Kyle Harrington (46), Kyle Nickol (42) and Hunter Beto (34) all rank among the top seven in AA in 3-pointers made this season. … Carson Dummer, a 6-foot-8 senior, has pulled down double-digit rebounds 10 times this season. … The Bruins rank sixth in AA in scoring offense (61.2 ppg).
Record: 16-4 (No. 2 seed Western AA)
Last state title: 2013
Leaders: Points — Tres Tinkle, 20.8 ppg; Rhett Baerlocher, 8.6 ppg; Brady Henthorn, 8.1 ppg; Pat Colberg, 8.0 ppg. Rebounds — Tinkle, 7.2 rpg; Baerlocher, 5.4 rpg. Assists — Devin Bray, 3.3 apg. Steals — Bray, 2.1 spg.
Notes: Hellgate got hot at the right time last season — winning its first state title since 2005 — and the Knights appear to be doing it again. They have won 12 straight and haven’t lost since Jan. 24 at Capital. … Hellgate started the season 0-2 with losses to Skyview and West in Billings, and its only two losses since are both to Capital. … Tres Tinkle, a 6-foot-6 junior, was the state tournament MVP last year as a sophomore. … The Knights rank third in AA in scoring offense (63.8 ppg) and second in defense (47.2).
Kalispell Glacier Wolfpack
Record: 10-10 (No. 3 seed Western AA)
Last state title: None
Leaders: Points — Evan Epperly, 17.6 ppg; Bryan Michaels, 14.0 ppg. Rebounds — Michaels, 6.5 rpg; Kyler Harkins, 5.3 rpg. Assists — Epperly, 4.6 apg; Michaels, 4.0 apg. Steals — Michaels, 1.7 spg.
Notes: The Wolfpack defeated crosstown rival Flathead in the regular-season finale and in the 4 vs. 5 playoff game, marking their first back-to-back wins since Jan. 30 and Feb. 6. … Evan Epperly, a 5-foot-9 senior, has led Glacier in scoring in seven of its past eight games. … None of the Wolfpack’s top eight scorers are over 6-foot-4, but they do average one more rebound per game than their opponents (27-26). … Glacier ranks seventh in AA in scoring offense (61.1 ppg) and ninth in defense (58.3).