The month of February is now upon us. The days are getting a little longer and maybe just a little bit warmer. It also means that inside gymnasiums all across Montana, things definitely get a lot more exciting.
Nowhere will that fact be more evident than in Havre this week as the annual District 9C boys basketball tournament kicks off on Tuesday afternoon at the Havre High gymnasium. The 9C tournament will run from Tuesday through Saturday night and it will run in conjunction with the 9C girls tournament for the second straight year.
Things have been very interesting in the 9C this season. Like last year, it was one of the deepest conferences in all of Class C basketball. On top of that, the conference has had the distinction of having the No. 1-ranked team in Class C in the Big Sandy Pioneers (18-0).
Big Sandy has been perfect this season and will be the heavy favorite this week to capture its first District 9C tournament title.
"I know we are the favorites and we are undefeated," said Big Sandy veteran head coach Roy Lackner. "But this tournament is always tough and there are always surprises. We won't overlook anybody and every team is potentially dangerous. But I do feel like if we play our best basketball, we'll have a good chance to be district champions on Saturday night."
But this isn't a one-team tournament. The tournament will have a very deep field, which Lackner's coaching brethren all agreed should make things interesting.
KG is the defending district tournament champion and enters tournament play with a 13-5 overall record. The KouGars and Box Elder have identical 12-4 conference records, tying for second place in the final regular-season standings.
The two teams were seeded by a coin toss and are expected to meet in Thursday's semifinal round. Veteran KG head coach Charlie Robinson is aware of how good the top-seeded Pioneers are, but he has also seen first-hand how quickly this tournament can produce a surprise winner. KG was seeded fourth last year when it captured the district title.
"We have played Big Sandy very tough twice," Robinson said. "They are a very good basketball team and they have tremendous talent and size. If they play well, they will be tough to beat.
"I also think that Box Elder and us will have a good shot at playing Saturday night," Robinson added. "We have had a couple a good battles with them this year and if we meet in the semifinals it should be a very good game. If Hays-Lodge Pole can eliminate some of the mistakes that they make during their games, they could be a team that will surprise some people in this tournament."
Hays-Lodge Pole head coach Ken Morin couldn't agree with Robinson more. His T-Birds went 10-8 overall and finished fourth in 9C this season. They will face the Turner Tornadoes in the first round of the tournament.
Morin said turnovers and fouls have killed his team at times this season. While he has one of the deepest and most talented teams in the tournament, he said the T-Birds will have to be much better this week than they have been at any point in the season.
"We make a lot of crucial mistakes at bad times and that has been our biggest problem," Morin said. "If we can play more poised than we have this season, we could be a very dangerous team. But there are a lot of teams in this tournament that could be very dangerous."
One of those teams is the Thunderbirds' first-round opponent. The Turner Tornadoes (8-10) have been one of the league's mild disappointments in 2004. Turner head coach Tim Conlan had high expectations when the season began, with the return of four solid starters who flourished in his up-tempo offense.
But the Tornadoes have had troubles at times offensively and Conlan said that lack of production has held them back. Nevertheless, he believes that if his team can dictate the pace of play this week in Havre, it can find success.
"I would honestly be disappointed if we are not playing somewhere Saturday night," Conlan said. "If we can do the things that have made us a good team, we can be a team that will knock somebody off this weekend."
Meanwhile, Rocky Boy (5-13) and Blue Sky (1-17) have had very difficult seasons on the Hi-Line. Both teams have struggled to find offense at times and will have troubles this week if they don't get better production. However, if that happens, Conlan fears that both teams will be very dangerous this week.
"You can't overlook Rocky Boy or Blue Sky," Conlan said. "Rocky Boy is a whole new team with the addition of a couple of players, and Blue Sky has been playing much better lately. If they play well, they will get somebody in this tournament."
Said Robinson: "This tournament has been very competitive over the years and our league has been one of the toughest in the state over the years. I don't think it will be any different this year. This tournament should be very exciting."
Boys games are scheduled for 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. through Friday. The consolation game will be Saturday afternoon and the boys championship game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday night. All of the action will be held at the Havre High School