High school sports dominate around-the-water-cooler talk and message-board musings year-round in this part of the world.
That reaches another level during basketball tournament time, which began this week in Ohio and starts Monday in Kentucky.
And this year, there's no shortage of storylines as local teams prepare for the payoff of those hours spent shooting alone in the gym during the summer, running suicides in October and playing what amount to practice games all regular season long.
Foremost among them locally is the impending showdown between Mason County and Augusta in the 39th District boys' tournament semifinals.
Though a blind draw may have cheated us of an expected tournament final between the Royals and Panthers, regarded as the top two teams in the district, their matchup carries more drama this way.
It's win or go home on Tuesday night as 12-time defending district champ Mason County looks to extend its 42-game winning streak against district opponents.
Augusta has never beaten the Royals in 28 previous meetings, including last year's instant classic in the district final, a 72-71 Mason County win when the Panthers announced to the world their arrival as contenders.
Mason County and Augusta also face off in the girls' tournament semifinals, and both combatants have rebounded from sluggish recent seasons.
With a win in their regular season finale Friday night at Nicholas County, the Lady Royals would earn their 18th win, which would match their total in the previous two seasons combined.
The Lady Panthers, meanwhile, stand 12-12 after a 55-50 loss at Harrison County on Wednesday. That means if Augusta can beat Robertson County on Saturday night, which it has already done twice this season, the Lady Panthers will finish the regular season above .500 for the first time since 1992-1993.
Bracken County's girls, back-to-back district champions, open the district tournament against St. Patrick, with designs on winning their third consecutive district title. That would be their longest such stretch since winning 12 districts in a row from 1981-1992.
The Lady Bears won their first title in their current run two seasons ago by beating the Lady Saints, although that feels like a lifetime ago. No one on St. Patrick's roster saw any floor time in that district championship game.
Mason County and Augusta's meeting in one boys' district semifinal will give the district's other two teams an opportunity to snap their region tournament droughts.
Either St. Patrick will reach the region for the first time since 2009, or Bracken County will be back for the first time since 2010.
Skipping southwest to Cynthiana for the 38th District tournament, Robertson County's boys and girls will be pitted against Nicholas County for the second straight season in semifinal action.
Both games last season resulted in Black Devils victories. Then-Deming knocked off the Bluejackets boys 62-60 in triple overtime, while the Lady Devils prevailed 60-44 on their way to the district title.
Though the 38th District does not seed, Nicholas County and Robertson County faced off twice in both boys' and girls' competition, with both Jackets clubs prevailing twice.
Fleming County's boys, one of the consensus top two teams in the 16th Region all year, are entering their eighth 61st District tournament since moving from the 10th Region before the 2005-2006 season, and haven't won any so far.
These Panthers have perhaps the best chance to date, with a semifinal date with Bath County on Monday and, should they advance as expected, a likely fourth straight district final meeting with Rowan County.
The Vikings have won the first three finals, but Fleming County has beaten the two-time defending region champs three times this season, the last on Darion Burns' two free throws in the final three seconds to win 61-59 Jan. 28 in Flemingsburg.
The top-seeded Lady Panthers, defending district tournament champs, face host Menifee County in the semifinals on Wednesday, six days after playing the Lady Cats in their home finale tonight. Fleming County edged Menifee County 71-66 Jan. 24 in Frenchburg.
Should the Lady Panthers survive that game, they advance to the district final against the winner of Bath County and Rowan County. Those Lady Cats and Lady Vikings split their two regular season meetings.
In 63rd District action, the Lewis County boys will look to get back to the district final after missing it last season for the first time in four years. Standing in the Lions' way is host Raceland, with whom Lewis County split two – losing 69-65 Dec. 20 in the Derby Classic and exacting revenge Jan. 18 with a 64-36 win in Vanceburg.
If the Lions advance, they would almost certainly face tournament favorite Russell, which has twice beaten Lewis County by 27 points this year, in the final.
The top-seeded Lady Lions seek to defend their 2012 district title, the first in school history. They, too, have to deal with tournament host Raceland, which Lewis County beat twice by an average of 17 points.
The other tournament semifinal matches Greenup County and Russell, which split their two regular-season meetings. The Lady Musketeers dealt Lewis County its only district seeding loss, winning 70-69 in overtime Dec. 8 in Lloyd.
While Kentucky teams are rounding out their regular seasons, Ohio girls sectionals kicked off this week, with Eastern Brown's girls advancing to their sectional tournament final with a victory Monday. The girls' teams at Manchester, West Union and Peebles will try to do the same thing tonight.
Ripley and Georgetown faced off in a tense tussle Dec. 8, with the host Lady G-Men coming from behind to win 51-45.
They could be on a collision course for a Feb. 23 rematch in the sectional final, the same round where Georgetown ended Ripley's season a year ago.
To make that happen, top-seeded Georgetown – which just completed its fourth straight undefeated sprint through the Southern Buckeye Conference National Division and won its 13th consecutive division crown – has to get past two division foes in winless Blanchester and Clermont Northeastern, both of which it's already dropped twice. Ripley would have to beat the winner of Felicity and Waynesville.
In boys' tournament action, Georgetown, which like its girls went 10-0 in SBC National Division play, opens sectional action Feb. 22 against Deer Park. If the G-Men win that game, they face a likely matchup with Summit Country Day, the top-ranked Division III team in Ohio in the Associated Press poll, in Xavier's Cintas Center on March 1.
Southern Hills Athletic Conference champion Eastern Brown and Peebles both gained byes into their respective Southeast District sectional tournament championship games. West Union will play Paint Valley on Monday for a chance to face the Warriors.
Manchester, which has struggled after losing almost everyone who took the Greyhounds to three straight Division IV Sweet 16s, starts its march back on Tuesday night against Glenwood.
And Ripley awaits a likely date with Roger Bacon, another top-10 team.
Plenty of local teams have a real shot to make some tournament noise, which should make for another fun February and March.