Boys High School Basketball

Top picks, favorites at the Idaho boys basketball state tournaments

Bishop Kelly guard Max Rice, right, and the rest of the Knights flew under the radar as 4A Southern Idaho Conference teams beat up on each other this season. But Bishop Kelly, the reigning state runner-up, could mount another run to the finals.
Bishop Kelly guard Max Rice, right, and the rest of the Knights flew under the radar as 4A Southern Idaho Conference teams beat up on each other this season. But Bishop Kelly, the reigning state runner-up, could mount another run to the finals. doswald@idahostatesman.com

Three months of basketball all comes down to this — win three straight games in three days, and you earn a spot in history with a state title.

But who can do that as Idaho’s six state tournaments tip off Thursday around the Treasure Valley?

The 5A field looks like its strongest in years. The 4A classification defied description all season with the majority of its teams battling to stay above .500. And the 3A tournament appears headed for a title bout between powerhouses Buhl and Snake River.

We examine all six classifications and their quest for championship Saturday at the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa:

CLASS 5A

THE FAVORITE

BORAH: The Lions (21-2) closed the regular season ranked No. 1 or tied for No. 1 in the state media poll for six straight weeks. Their only kryptonyte proved to be Centennial, which swept the regular-season series for Borah’s only two losses. But Borah and its classification-leading defense (35.7 points per game) got revenge with a 43-32 victory for the District Three title, and it’s poised to add another title to its haul.

THE CONTENDER

MADISON: The Bobcats (20-2) enter as a high-flying squad, averaging a 5A-leading 68.3 points per game — a rarity under longtime coach Bill Hawkins. And with Jaxon Edelmayer (14.0 ppg) and Nathan Webb (13.3 ppg), Madison can spread its scoring around. The Bobcats’ lone losses came by one point at Highland and 21 points at Borah on Dec. 4. But in high school basketball, that’s nearly a lifetime ago and holds little weight this weekend.

THE DARK HORSE

ROCKY MOUNTAIN: The Grizzlies (17-6) have battled injury woes all season. But with Kolby Lee, Jacob Erickson and Blair Moore all back on the court, Rocky Mountain is finally fully healthy and ready to live up to its preseason expectations. The size of Lee (6-foot-9) and Moore (6-10) gives Rocky an advantage in the front court and opens up space on the perimeter for its shooters.

CLASS 4A

THE FAVORITE

PRESTON: The Indians (19-4) are making their first state appearance since 2007. So how are they the favorite? In a topsy-turvy year in 4A where only six of the classification’s 21 teams are better than .500 entering state, Preston is the most consistent and battle-tested team, going 5-3 against the 4A tournament field. Add in reigning first-team All-Idaho member Austin Smellie, and Preston remains the safest bet.

THE CONTENDER

MINICO: The Spartans (20-4) broke through this winter, winning their first district title in five years. Minico tested itself, traveling to southern Idaho to score nonconference wins over Skyview, Eagle and Utah’s Logan. It even went 1-2 against Preston, winning a holiday tournament over the Indians on their home court. But perhaps its most impressive victory came in a 60-31 win to close the regular season over Hillcrest, a 5A program that finished 17-7.

THE DARK HORSE

BISHOP KELLY: The Knights (14-5) will push the pace for 32 minutes, wearing out opponents and unleashing their guard-heavy roster on the break and behind the 3-point line. Sophomore Max Rice leads the team in scoring (14.0 ppg) and rebounds (5.1). But three other Knights — Bronson King, Dan Sabala and Mike Martinez — average seven or more points, giving Bishop Kelly the depth to survive an off night.

CLASS 3A

THE FAVORITE

BUHL: The Indians (21-2) won the 2014 title and reached the finals last season, and they return loads of talent from those two teams. Two-time, first-team All-Idaho guard Hayden Eckert leads Buhl in four categories — points (19.8), assists (4.5), steals (2.4) and 3-pointers per game (3.8). And three more players average 10 or more points a game, including forward Michael Lively (13.4 ppg, 11 rebounds), another returning first-team All-Idaho pick.

THE CONTENDER

SNAKE RIVER: After missing state last year, the Panthers (20-2) enter with one distinction no one else in the 3A field can claim — a victory over Buhl. The two juggernauts split their regular-season series, so a third round in the championship would only be fitting. And five-time state champion coach Bob Coombs knows how to get them there.

THE DARK HORSE

EMMETT: The Huskies (14-9) are in unfamiliar territory after winning their first district championship since 2002 and are searching for their first state title since 1965. But after a challenging early schedule that saw Emmett start 3-7 (0-4 vs. 4As), Emmett and its athletic and balanced lineup enter state 11-2 in its past 13 games. No one averages more than 10 points per game, but four players average more than six.

CLASS 2A

THE FAVORITE

FIRTH: After winning the past two titles, and six of the past nine, the Cougars (21-2) return as the undisputed team to beat. They hold opponents to 35.3 points per game. And 6-7 center Connor Burkhart, a reigning second-team All-Idaho pick, remains a bear in the paint, averaging 14.5 ppg. The only blemishes on Firth’s record came from 3A state qualifier South Fremont.

THE CONTENDER

WEST SIDE: The Pirates (16-8) and Soda Springs (18-8) battled it out all year in District Five (Pocatello). But West Side emerged as the champ, and its only losses came to Soda Springs, Preston, Utah’s Rich (16-5) and two-time state champ Firth. It pushed Firth both times, losing by a combined nine points.

THE DARK HORSE

MELBA: The Western Idaho Conference has gone 0-8 at state the past two years, with all four representatives going two-and-out, including Melba twice. But the league sent a team to the state finals for three straight years from 2011-13, and the Mustangs (18-4) could help restart that tradition. Melba has won 13 straight and fields one of the most dangerous threats in the tournament in junior guard Nick Fitts (22.3 ppg).

CLASS 1A DIVISION I

THE FAVORITE

LAPWAI: The Wildcats (20-0) finished second at state last year and return every player who saw the floor in that championship game. Lapwai rolled through the season in the always tough Whitepine League, winning by an average margin of 25.7 points and winning every game but one by double digits. A nine-man rotation allows Lapwai to out run and wear down opponents into submission.

THE CONTENDER

AMBROSE: Lapwai may claim the perfect record. But the Archers (22-2) may have the most impressive one with their only two losses coming to 5A programs Centennial and Vallivue at a holiday tournament. Ambrose also scored a win over an Oregon 5A program, Ridgeview, at the tournament.

THE DARK HORSE

PRAIRIE: The Pirates (18-4) come in under the radar despite winning the past two state titles. They’ve lost plenty of talent off those two teams. But Prairie still fields the reigning 1A Division I All-Idaho Player of the Year in Jake Bruner. Three of its four losses came to Lapwai, which resides on the opposite side of the bracket.

CLASS 1A DIVISION II

THE FAVORITE

COUNCIL: The Lumberjacks (20-3) finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the state media poll for five straight weeks. And with a 13-game winning streak, a tough out-of-state schedule and a rotation that goes eight deep, it’s not hard to see why. But Council has little experience on the big stage, reaching its only final in 2004, and it has yet to win a state title.

THE CONTENDER

DIETRICH: The Blue Devils (19-4) have become regulars at state, qualifying for the seventh time in eight years. And with a consistent offense that has topped 50 points all but three times this year, Dietrich might finally have the horses to hang its first banner since 1966.

THE DARK HORSE

GENESIS PREP: The private Christian school in Post Falls joined the IHSAA this season and is already making noise. The Jaguars (18-4) are undefeated vs. both of Idaho’s 1A classifications, and they are 5-1 vs. Idaho’s 3A teams, including a seven-point win over 3A state qualifier Kellogg.

Michael Lycklama: 208-377-6424, @MichaelLycklama

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