PASCO -- Tri-City basketball teams have used the last month of mostly nonleague games to get up to speed and find the lineup that will best help them contend for a playoff spot, or even better, a league title.
Tonight, area teams will kick off the season's second month, which consists almost exclusively of league games that will decide who's in and who's out when district play rolls around in the second week of February.
And there's not much room for error.
"They always mean more when you lose them than when you win them," said Richland boys coach Earl Struefert, whose Bombers dropped their first league matchup at Walla Walla just before Christmas break, a 43-42 loss that has the defending 4A district champions already behind the eight ball.
"When we were walking off the court, I thought 'this is one that will come back to haunt us a little,' " Streufert said.
Richland (7-2, 0-1 CBBN 4A) has a chance to even its league slate tonight at Chiawana (6-3, 1-0), but it won't be easy against the Riverhawks, who are undefeated against six CBBN opponents this season.
But the reputation of Streufert's tough defensive squads precedes itself heading into the Riverhawks' home gym.
"In nonleague games, you're trying out different lineups and seeing what depth you have. In league it's about positioning yourself for the playoffs," said Riverhawks coach Chad Herron. "Earl always has his teams ready defensively. They're going to be physical. They're going to bump us.
"And it all starts with Calvin. They're fairly young around him, and he assumes a lot of leadership."
That would be Calvin Douglas, the Bombers' 6-foot-6 post who is averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds a game. A four-year starter, Douglas has been Richland's anchor inside, providing solid rebounding and a strong defensive presence.
"He's playing really well right now," said Streufert. "The real key is contending with their guards (Justin Smith, Buddy Walter and Miquiyah Zamora). They can shoot, and they can all handle the ball and take it at you."
Chiawana has four players averaging double figures -- Smith (15.2), Jordan Downing (13.8), Walter (13.6) and Zamora (10.3). Richland has three with Douglas, Grant Gallinger (12.7) and point guard Colter Quick (10.0).
"What can you say? It's Richland," Herron said. "Anytime a Richland school goes up against a Pasco school it's a rivalry."
But it's certainly not the only game in town. Kennewick travels to Hanford for a 7:30 p.m. matchup and Kamiakin plays host to Eastmont at 7:30 p.m.
In the CWAC, unbeaten Grandview travels to Prosser at 7:30 p.m., and Columbia-Burbank hits the road for an SCAC East matchup in Connell at 7:30 p.m.