Of the many scenarios which could materialize during the next three days at the Mascoutah Girls Basketball Invitational, most involve the Central Cougars and the Nashville Hornettes.
And with good reason.
The dominant Class 2A programs in Southern Illinois, the defending tournament champion and reigning Class 2A state champ Hornettes (10-0) and Cougars (11-0) have been that good during the first half of the 2013-14 season.
Now they need to get better.
"I've been pleased at how we've played so far, but as a coach you always see things you can improve upon,'' Central coach Nathan Rueter said. "The Mascoutah Tournament is always a good test, because it gives you a chance to play quality teams and get an idea of things you need to work on heading into the second half of the season.''
Runner-up to Nashville at the 2012 Mascoutah Invitational, the top-seeded Cougars will kick off the tournament at 8:30 a.m. Thursday against Okawville (3-6) in the first of eight first-round games at Mascoutah High School.
Second-seeded Nashville will play Centralia in the final first-round game at 7 p.m. Third-seeded Belleville West (6-3) takes on Wesclin (5-5) at 2:30 p.m., while No. 4 seed Mater Dei (6-4) will tangle with Freeburg (1-7) at 1 p.m.
Four more first-round games also are on the opening day slate with the quarterfinals set for Friday. Semifinals are set for 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday with the title game scheduled for 7 p.m.
Nashville defeated Central 44-31 in the championship game a year ago. But while Nashville has been tested upon occasion this season, Central has rolled through its first 11 games.
The Cougars went 5-0 while winning the Pana Tournament and have had just one game decided by under 10 points -- a 49-43 win over Rochester at Pana.
Rueter has a trio of top players to lead the way.
After showing loads of promise a year ago, sophomore Kendra Wilken (20.3 ppg.) has turned into one of the state's top small-school post players, while seniors Maddie Timmermann (14.3) and Torre Kohrmann (9.1) are not only options on offense, but provide leadership for the Cougars.
Despite also being unbeaten, Nashville had to rally to beat Collinsville and Massac County in its own Thanksgiving Tournament to start the season.
Coach Wayne Harre has had to mix and match at times during the first half of the season as he tries to fill the void left by the graduation of Shaye Harre and Erica Brown.
"We've got three starters back, but I think this group is still learning to play as a together as a team,'' Harre said. "We have some kids who didn't see a lot of playing time last year and we're asking them to come in and play a lot of minutes.
"So far I'm pleased with what I've seen and I think this (Mascoutah) tournament will once again be a good test for us. We just need to play and hopefully having a chance to get in four games in three days will be good.''
The Hornettes have one of the premier small-school players in the state in junior point guard Jordi Harre and a gifted athlete in 6-1 senior Shawn Rennegarbe to lead the way.
And, of course, the Hornettes still are playing great defense while showing patience on the offensive end.
Despite having two of the top players in the 16-team field, Wayne Harre still thinks Central is the team to beat.
"I haven't seem them (Central) play, but judging by what they have coming back, I would have to say they are the favorites going in,'' Harre said. "We just want to keep improving. This tournament will give us a chance to see what needs to get better as we head into January.''
The main obstacle to a Nashville-Central rematch appears to be the Belleville West Maroons.
The Maroons boast two athletic guards in juniors Imani Berry (12.8 points per game) and Shay Fluker (17.6 ppg). They also have a 6-4 post player in senior Jesheon Cooper (13.2) who continues to progress, while the quickness of Alliyah St. John allows her to be one of the top defensive players in the Southwestern Conference.
Still, the Maroons are 6-3 with losses to Edwardsville, Mater Dei and Belleville East.
"It's actually been like a roller coaster. We've been up and down all year. We're looking to become more consistent on both ends of the floor,'' West coach Clayton Fisher said. "We've lost to Edwardsville and Mater Dei, two of the top programs around, and then we lost to Belleville East, which is playing very good basketball right now.
"I don't know. It just depends on what team shows up. We're capable of beating anyone. But by the same token, we're also capable of losing to almost anyone we play.''
Hit hard by graduation a year ago, Mater Dei has shown steady progress and enters its first-round game on a three-game winning streak.
Lindsey Perkes (10.1) leads the Knights in scoring.
Belleville East is perhaps playing as well as any team entering the tournament. The Lancers are 7-2 in their last nine games after an 0-2 start and have one of the premier players in the tournament in senior Montira Mosby (16.6).
Host Mascoutah (5-5), Highland (6-4), Althoff (4-2) and O'Fallon (4-3) are other teams to watch at Mascoutah.