BELGRADE — If ever there was a wide-open field, this might it.
Colstrip enters the Class B Boys State Basketball Tournament this week at Belgrade's Special Events Center as the top-ranked team. But the Colts struggled to get past depleted Three Forks in the divisional final in Southern B and there is no clear-cut favorite.
A three-loss Poplar team emerged from the always-powerful Northern B with its first tournament berth since 1985 after a definitive 10-point win over Rocky Boy in the final. Poplar and Rocky Boy are joined by Shelby, which is making its fourth consecutive appearance and finished second a year ago.
Northern B has won nine of the past 11 state titles, but the Southern B could be poised to break through for its first crown since Huntley Project in 2007. The top-heavy division had four of the state's top six Class B teams in the final 406mtsports.com rankings.
Other than Bigfork, the Western B has struggled at state. Other than the Vikings' unbeaten run to the crown last year and its title in 2014, no Western team has won since Plains pulled it off in 1987. Bigfork and Missoula Loyola hope to reshape that trend this week.
The tournament starts at 3 p.m. Wednesday and runs through Friday.
Teams: Bigfork, Big Timber, Colstrip, Missoula Loyola, Poplar, Rocky Boy, Shelby, Three Forks.
Top seed: Poplar is the only school in Montana history to win titles in three classifications -- Class A, B and C -- but it has been a long time since the Indians were at state (1985) and even longer since winning the last of their two Class B crowns (1935). Two of the Indians' defeats are to Class C power Fairview and the other to potent Class B rival Wolf Point. Poplar has been a balanced team all season, though look for Kenny Smoker and Wendell Main in the clutch.
Other qualifiers: Rocky Boy began the season with some bad news -- that one of its stars, post Kendall Windy Boy, who scored 20 points and had 29 rebounds in the final game of his junior season with the Northern Stars, would be ineligible due to turning 20 in December; Windy Boy went on to play at Stone Child College. Nevertheless, Rocky Boy found a way behind Frankie Bacon and Blake Cantrell and the Northern Stars -- who last won state in 2010 -- enter the tournament having won nine of their last 10 before losing to Poplar in the final. They were unbeaten in February, losing only to Class A Havre during their run. Shelby took the third spot by holding off a Choteau rally for a 66-60 win in the divisional third-place game. Tanner Parsons, Logan Leck and Rhett Reynolds have shouldered the scoring burden for the Coyotes, who last won it all in 2008 and also have the trophy from 1955.
Top seed: Colstrip has spent most of its season at the top of the 406mtsports.com rankings and did nothing in a loaded divisional to suggest the Colts (23-0) were overrated. They were held to their lowest scoring output of the season in defeating Three Forks for the title, but that came after thoroughly dismantling previously unbeaten Big Timber 66-44 in the semifinals. Colstrip has ridden the broad shoulders of a three-headed monster: Kobee BigBack, Kellen BigHead and JT Baer have each proven capable of scoring binges on a given night.
Other qualifiers: If there's an unsung team nobody wants to play, it might be Three Forks (17-6). The gritty Wolves took No. 1 Colstrip to the wire in the divisional final, falling 43-40, despite having one top player, Payden Lynn, out with an ankle injury and another, Corey Yency, slowed by an illness. Three of Three Forks' defeats were to No. 2 Big Timber, the third qualifier from the top-heavy Southern B. Post Bryce Miller has been a go-to scorer, along with Bryce Olson for the Wolves, who last won state in 2001 and also did the honors in 1974. The third qualifier is Big Timber, which was ranked second and unbeaten until running into the Colstrip buzzsaw at divisionals. The Herders, looking for their first state title in 79 years, have been a potent offensive bunch, led by Kell Schwers with plenty of help from Casey Gunlikson, Ethan Bullock and Blake Finn.
Top seed: After splitting with Missoula Loyola during the regular season, defending state champion Bigfork won the game that mattered -- the divisional final -- to sew up the No. 1 spot. The Vikings, who also won in 2014, enter the tournament having won 12 of their final 13 games. Bigfork has a couple scoring standouts in Logan Gilliard and Colton Reichenbach, both routinely fed by point guard Anders Epperly, who moved into second all-time in Montana history in assists behind Fairfield legend Shane Gamradt.
Other qualifier: Missoula Loyola (18-4) arrived here the hard way, downing St. Ignatius 84-41 in a challenge game for the second spot from Western B. The Rams have eight seniors who remember playing in the state semifinals in 2017, led by high-scoring Jack Lincoln, a California Lutheran signee who had 27 points against St. Ignatius and surpassed 1,000 points for his career. Lincoln's athletic supporting cast includes Ryan Tirrell, a Montana football signee, and Cooper Waters, who's headed to Montana Tech to play football.