If the obstacles seem bigger this week at the State AA boys' basketball tournament it's because they are.
There is no shortage of giants to slay at the three-day event, which along with the State AA girls' tourney, begins Thursday at MetraPark in Billings. With several Division I athletes in attendance, including two legitimate big men, it's the boys' tourney that is shaping up to be one of the best in years.
The roll call of giants starts with defending champion Great Falls CMR, which features 6-foot-8 senior Josh Huestis in its frontcourt. Like former Missoula Big Sky standout Joslyn Tinkle, Huestis is Stanford-bound, but he has all of the state's attention this one final weekend.
The reigning Gatorade Player of the Year for Montana leads Class AA in rebounding (12.8), blocked shots (5.0) and is third in scoring (16.9) per game this season. Last year, Huestis had 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in the Rustlers' 57-51 win over Billings West in the boys' title tilt. Apparently Huestis is just as scary this season.
"I went and watched (CMR's) playoff game and he's made a huge step up in his game. He's improved tremendously since last year," said Missoula Sentinel coach Craig Matosich. "He's a force to be reckoned with, that's for sure."
The third-ranked Rustlers (18-3) are the No. 2 seed out of the Eastern AA and they open against Kalispell Flathead (12-8) at noon.
The real giant that everyone is talking about is top-ranked Billings West, which is eyeing a fourth championship game appearance in a row. The Bears (18-2) were state runners-up last season after winning back-to-back crowns in 2007 and '08. The later victory came against Matosich's Spartans.
"The way that West finished the regular season was a big surprise," Matosich said. "In talking with the other Eastern AA coaches, I got the feeling they really didn't expect that out of West."
"They have everything," said Kalispell Glacier coach Mark Harkins, whose team opens against the Bears on Thursday at 8 p.m. "For us to compete, we're going to have to play a good all-around game, because they don't have a weakness."
The Bears average 76.6 points per game as a team, which is nearly 10 points more than the next closest, CMR. Leading the way is senior guard Brian Muller, who leads AA in scoring at 20.3 points per outing. Senior forward Jacob Hellyer is second on the team in scoring (12.7), but his big contribution is rebounds (6.9) and steals (2.0), which key West's quick transition offense.
"The key is going to be tempo," Harkins said. "They want the game to get up into the 70s, 80s and 90s. If we get up there, we're playing into their hands. We have to be careful. Now, we can't walk it up the floor, but we have to be controlled and not turn the ball over."
Sentinel, which is making its fifth consecutive trip to state, is the tourney's other No. 1 seed. The Western AA champs haven't played since Feb. 27 - a break of 12 days - but as far as games go, they're taking it one step at a time.
"The first one is always the toughest," said Matosich, "and that will be the case again this year."
The Spartans open against Billings Skyview, which won a playoff game at No. 4 Bozeman to advance to state. The Falcons (13-8) boast one of the tourney's top post players in junior Danny Little and passer in senior Rylan Shaw.
The 6-7 Little had 12 points and 12 rebounds in Skyview's season-opening 46-36 victory over Sentinel way back on Dec. 11. Shaw had 17 points and five assists. Little nearly averages a double-double with 10.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, while Shaw is AA's top assist man at 5.5 per game. Little is second to Huestis in blocks, too.
"They're a good, solid team," said Matosich, who watched the Falcons win 52-44 in Bozeman last week. "With Danny Little, Rylan Shaw and the role players that they have, if they're all playing within themselves they'll be tough."
Sentinel (13-7) closed on a five-game win streak to win the West. The Spartans rely on senior point guard Kendal Maier and sophomore sharp-shooter Riley King. Maier is second in the state in scoring (17.3 ppg), while King chips in nearly a dozen per.
Sentinel also has senior center Zack Wagenmann and junior forward Ben Roberts, who were starters on last year's team as well as contributers on the '08 team that finished runner-up to West.
"Everybody was new last year, so that experience is something we will hopefully fall back on; not be so bright-eyed," Matosich said. "As for 2008, that's been far enough gone - the kids expect to be there (in the finals), that's a yearly goal - it's not a bad thing that happened, but it's far enough removed where it's really not prevelant."
Roberts is the Spartans' top rebounder, while at 6-3 and 200-plus pounds, Wagenmann is Sentinel's biggest presence in the post. Wagenmann signed to play football for the Montana Grizzlies, while Roberts has D-I football or baseball in his future.
Seniors Shay Smithwick-Hann of Glacier and Matt Miller of Capital are two others with college football careers awaiting them next fall. Miller averages 16.2 and Smithwick-Hann 15.1 points per game.
"It's an amazing thing to watch all these kids from all these different teams from across the state put their athletic abilities on display," Harkins said. "You just to sit there and go ‘Wow,' to see some of the things they do. To put all those kids in one arena is going to be a treat for anybody who likes great athletics."
NOTES: This is the sixth straight season the boys and girls have combined their tourneys. ... Capital's Miller faces his uncle, Billings Senior head coach Jim Stergar, in an opening-round game. The No. 2 Broncs (17-4) are one of the boys' other surprises this year. Capital (13-8) and Senior are the top two defensive teams in the field. ... Flathead's top scorer is Karl Ingram, who tied Shaw for 10th in AA at 13.1 ppg. ... Glacier (14-7) makes its second straight trip to state in just its third year.