This year's Class 1A, District 4 boys basketball playoff schedule looks as much like a Northwest Conference single elimination tournament as it does a district tourney post-season bracket.
Newell-Fonda is the only Northwest Conference team in the upper portion of the bracket, which also includes Twin Lakes Conference squad Laurens-Marathon.
But in the lower portion, the NW Conference teams include third-ranked Alta, Aurelia, Storm Lake-St. Mary's and Schaller-Crestland.
In Class 2A, Sioux Central competes in District 2 and opens post-season action with Okoboji-Milford.
Class 1A and 2A pairings were released on the Iowa High School Athletic Association's website on Monday.
On Wedneday, the teams' coaches weighed in on their first round opponents, the current state of their teams and handicapped the brackets.
Tuesday night, meanwhile, Alta clinched the Northwest Conference title with a win at Sioux Central.
The Cyclones, 17-1, are the odds-on favorite for the District 4 title and according to many coaches, will be favored in a 1A substate game vs. the District 3 winner.
As a first-year coach last season, BVU grad Bart Smith guided Alta to its first state basketball tournament since 1975. The 'Clones lost to first-round state tourney opponent Bellevue-Marquette last March.
Now in his second season, Smith has his team poised for another long tourney run. All year, Alta has had a target on its back, but that hasn't made much difference.
"We want to get up and down the court as much as we can," Smith said. "When we're playing well, our best offense is the points we score in transition off our defense. That's what we'll want to do at tourney time."
The Cyclones aren't small up front and have significant depth at the post and power forward positions. They also have one of the top guards in the area in senior captain Tyler Boyd, who averages 15 ppg.
The Cyclones open tournaments with a bye, and meet the winner of the Schaller-Crestland/Storm Lake-St. Mary's game Feb. 22 in Schaller. The Panthers and Wildcats play a first-round game Monday, Feb. 19 in Schaller.
St. Mary's coach Brad Wilkening's team has struggled of late. It's loss to Pomeroy-Palmer Tuesday was it's fifth straight. During the streak, the Panthers have scored an average of just 45 point per game.
"We've been so up and down in so many games this season and we've lacked consistency," Wilkening said. "We've had trouble putting four solid quarters together. We aren't a team that scores a lot of points, so we'll have to play better defense than we have been."
Alta's Smith, a former football player for BVU, knows his team can't look past anyone.
"St. Mary's is a well-coached team that could give other teams trouble," Smith said. "They've been improving with every game."
Aurelia also gets a first-round bye; it opens with Odebolt-Arthur Feb. 22 in Schaller. The Bulldogs are led by a solid post combination of Aaron Bruce and Gabe Fuller and guards Jared and Jacob Bruce.
Aurelia, 7-9 overall, has also been up and down, coach Grant Peckenschneider said.
"The one thing we've done pretty well is play good defense," he said. "We haven't shot the ball as well as I thought we would or as well as we can. We'll have to get that part our game going to open up our inside game."
Peckenschneider said O-A is one of the better teams in the area, adding that it owns a 21-point win over Sac City.
"They have some big kids underneath and a nice supporting cast of guards," he said. "They can be a dangerous team for anybody in that district."
Should Alta open with a win over St. Mary's or Schaller-Crestland, it would meet the Aurelia/Odebolt-Arthur winner on Monday, Feb. 26.
The top two seeds in the upper bracket of District 4, meanwhile, are WLVA and Newell-Fonda.
The Mustangs, suffering through an unusual, under-.500 season, shouldn't be ruled out come tournament time, according to its long-time coach Paul Loos.
"I really think this group of kids can play with anybody," said Loos, who added that each of his team's 11 losses have been by five points or less.
"We are getting better, but we have to get more aggressive and learn how to control tempo on both ends of the floor," he said.
Newell-Fonda opens Feb. 19 vs. Pomeroy-Palmer in Newell. The Knights have beaten N-F twice, 46-43 in Pomeroy Dec. 8 and 65-63 last week in Newell.
"They're a good basketball team," Loos said of P-P.
"In most of our losses this season, we've had leads late but haven't been able to make them stand up. We need to finish games better."