Mountain basketball is back on the map.
Not since the days of Clay County and Richie Farmer in the 1980s, and J.R. VanHoose and Paintsville in the 1990s, has so much attention been focused on Eastern Kentucky teams.
As the 92nd Boys' Sweet Sixteen rolls into Rupp Arena, the hot topic of conversation is the strength of the the so-called mountain regions: the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th.
Dave Cantrall's Sweet Sixteen ratings support the hype.
■ Shelby Valley (15th Region) is No. 1.
■ Corbin (13th) is No. 4.
■ Elliott County (16th) is No. 5.
■ Hazard (14th) is No. 11.
"In years past, people were begging to draw the mountain teams in the Sweet Sixteen," Shelby Valley Coach Jason Booher said. "I don't think they were this year."
Hazard Coach Al Holland agreed: "For the last 10 years, this is the most well-balanced 13th through 16th region teams we've had in the state tournament. I think all four of us can pretty much play with anybody."
Shelby Valley, led by junior star Elisha Justice, hasn't lost since Dec. 29. The Wildcats are on a 23-game winning streak, including a victory over then-No. 1 Elliott County on their way to the All "A" Classic small-school title six weeks ago.
Booher said being No. 1 "gives people something to talk about," but it doesn't change the fact that his Cats face a rough road in Rupp.
"We probably got the toughest draw we could get. We know we have to get hot at the right time and shoot well to win," he said.
Shelby Valley's first-round foe is No. 2 Mason County, the defending state champ.
If the Cats pass that test, they could have a rematch with Elliott County in the quarterfinals. If they make it to Saturday morning's semifinals, No. 6 Lexington Catholic or No. 7 Holmes could be waiting.
Corbin opens against No. 3 Eastern.
"We've got a very tough game right off the bat in Eastern," Redhounds Coach Tony Pietrowski said. "Any time you go 30-2, especially playing the schedule they do, I think you have to pick them as a favorite."
Elliott County, whose only loss in its last 26 games was to Shelby Valley in the All "A," opens against Anderson County, a team it struggled to beat in overtime two months ago.
This is Elliott County's third consecutive state tournament, so veterans Jonathan Ferguson, Ethan Faulkner and Evan Faulkner shouldn't be affected by nerves.
Neither should Hazard, which is in the Sweet Sixteen for the third time in four years. The Bulldogs play West Jessamine in Wednesday's tournament opener.
While everybody agrees that the Eastern Kentucky teams are strong representatives, there is no consensus among the coaches on a Sweet Sixteen favorite.
Once Scott County star Richie Phares went down with a knee injury in the region semifinals and the No. 1 Cardinals went down to Lexington Catholic in the finals, this Sweet Sixteen became a four-day scramble for the big trophy.
"There's not a clear-cut favorite," Holmes Coach David Henley said. "There could be as many as eight teams capable of winning it."
Adair County Coach Mark Fudge said the tournament could be unpredictable to the finish.
"This could be the year that one or two teams might surprise a lot of folks and get to the final four, and maybe even to the championship game," he said.
Eastern Coach Jason Couch singled out Holmes.
"They were state runner-up last year, highly regarded in the pre-season, and they've had a great year," he said. "They might have a chip on their shoulder because they had a chance to win the whole thing last year."
Couch also thinks Mason County has a chance to become the first repeat champ since Fairdale in 1990-91, and he regards Elliott County as a real threat.
He also considers his own Eastern Eagles as a legitimate contender: "We played three extremely good teams to win the 7th Region, so we're definitely battle-tested," he said.
Lexington Catholic Coach Brandon Salsman pointed to Eastern as his top choice, but also predicted that Elliott County and Shelby Valley would be the crowd favorites.
"They could be Cinderella stories," he said.
Grayson County Coach Todd Johnston thinks having Eastern Kentucky teams in contention would add to the frenzy of the four-day event.
"It's great for high school basketball in Kentucky," he said. "because those regions probably have the strongest following."
The last mountain teams to win the state title were Paintsville in 1996 and Clay County in 1987.
Six former champs are in the field: Central (1969, 1974), Corbin (1936), Eastern (1997), Hazard (1932, 1955), Lexington Catholic (2002) and Mason County (2003, 2008).