Hopkins is still the standard for excellence, but the margin is closing. The two-time defending Class 4A champs still are loaded, led by smooth and athletic wing Nia Coffey and hair-trigger point guard Taylor Anderson, but a rugged schedule, a huge target on their backs and the loss of Viria Livingston to a knee injury indicate that nothing will come easy for the Royals this season.

DeLaSalle will be fine. The two-time Class 3A champion Islanders have two superstars returning in Tyseanna Johnson and Allina Starr but are largely inexperienced elsewhere. That was evident in season-opening losses to Bloomington Kennedy and Eastview. But Faith Johnson Patterson has coached seven state championship teams and knows how to prepare for the postseason.

Will Jessica January get another chance? The electric January, a senior guard who can take over a game, led the Spartans to the 2012 Class 3A championship game before losing to DeLaSalle in the finals. January, who is closing in on 2,000 career points, is back along with two other starters from last year, but how far the Spartans go will be determined by how quickly they adapt to new head coach Scott Stadem and whether they can once again survive the difficult Section 6, 3A.

Speaking of Section 6, 3A, it may be the most competitive section in the metro. In addition to Richfield, it includes Benilde-St. Margaret's, led by U of M recruit Grace Coughlin; a Chaska team that can go deep into its bench with little dropoff; and Waconia, which returns seven starters from last year's 20-game winners.

Yes, Jade and Jazmyn Martin are sisters. The Bloomington Kennedy forwards - Jade is a 6-0 senior, Jazz a 6-3 eighth-grader - can play both inside and out and are matchup nightmares. The Eagles already have beaten DeLaSalle and nearly upset Hopkins.


Five west metro players not listed above worth noting:

Emily Spier, Buffalo, 6-1, sr., C: The North Dakota State recruit is a dominant force on the low blocks but is also skilled at running the floor.

• Phillis Webb, Osseo, 5-8, sr., G: Exceptional athlete whose quickness and leaping ability set her apart. Will play at Eastern Michigan.

Joanna Hedstrom, Minnetonka, 5-11, sr., G: Great basketball sense and exceptional range. Committed to Minnesota, following in the footsteps of her mother, former Gopher Mary Dressen.

M.C. McGrory, Edina, 5-8, sr., G: A strong on-ball defender who excels in transition. Headed to Creighton.

Chase Coley, Minneapolis Washburn, 6-3, jr., F: Averaged a double-double in 2012 - 18.8 points, 13.3 rebounds. Exceptional length and timing led to eight blocked shots per game.


Five games worth the gas money to watch

• Osseo at Armstrong, Jan. 8, 7 p.m.

• DeLaSalle at Benilde-St. Margaret's, Jan. 19, 6 p.m.

• Hopkins at Minnetonka, Jan. 22, 7 p.m.

• Red Wing at Chaska, Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m

• Bloomington Kennedy at Eastview, Feb. 15, 7 p.m.