At this time of year, there's more questions than answers floating around the local boys' basketball scene.
Can Flintridge Prep, the most successful local program last season, duplicate its CIF championship run despite losing its biggest weapon? Is this the year Crescenta Valley, with one of its strongest teams in years, will finally topple Pacific League power Pasadena? Can Renaissance Academy make it back to a CIF title game for the first time since 2007 after mounting the most consistent deep playoff runs in the area over the last decade?
Fortunately, the wait won't be much longer to begin to see how it all falls into place, as the 2011-12 season is about to tip off.
Flintridge Prep is coming off its finest season ever after beating Muir to win the CIF Southern Section Division V-AA title, but also comes back without the most dominant player in program lore, center Kenyatta Smith, who is now at Harvard University.
Still, a good number of the key players in last year's run are back, including three starters in guards Robert Cartwright, a sophomore, and senior Kory Hamane, as well as junior swingman Jedrick Eugenio.
"We're definitely going to miss Kenyatta because of everything he did," Prep Coach Garrett Ohara said of Smith, whose myriad senior honors included CIF Division V Player of the Year and All-Area Player of the Year. "But those three solid guards are back and stronger, bigger and with another year under their belts, so they're ready to go and we expect great leadership from them."
Replacing the other graduated starter, Jared Norsworthy, at power forward will be junior Chad Cosse and junior Kareem Ismail will assume duties in the middle.
"He's ready to step up as a junior and take an active role at the center position," Ohara said of the 6-foot-5 Ismail. "He's a little different player [than Smith]. He's got more of an outside, kind of a Euro big-man [game] where he can go inside, but can also shoot a decent outside shot."
Before the Rebels mount a defense of their CIF title, they will attempt to defend the Prep League crown, which they shared with Poly last year. The Panthers don't figure to be as formidable, however, having lost four starters, including Daniel Wohl and Hunter Merryman. Ohara predicts Chadwick to be tougher this season, as well as Rio Hondo Prep, which returns four starters.
"Anything can happen in [the Prep] League, but I think, on paper, we would still probably be the favorite," Ohara said.
Until someone knocks off the Pasadena Bulldogs, they would seem to be the favorite in the Pacific League, as well. But Crescenta Valley figures to be a strong contender for league with its entire starting lineup back, led by senior power forward and All-CIF pick Christian Misi.
"You hope that the experience and the fact that all these guys have been playing for two or three years on varsity should be an advantage in close games and big games," Crescenta Valley Coach Shawn Zargarian said. "I've heard people say stuff about Pasadena, that they might have a down year and this or that, but they've won it the last five or six years and I think everyone in our league is always trying to knock off the beast. Hopefully, with our talent, with our experience, we can give them a little run this year.
"Until somebody takes that title away from them, they're Pacific League champions. They've been holding on for quite a while."
Rounded out by starters Cole Currie (junior) and Dylan Kilgore (senior) in the backcourt and seniors Davis Dragovich and Rudy Avila up front, the Falcons also boast an intriguing addition, as well, in 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Nick Springer, a transfer student from the Virgin Islands.
"He can handle the ball, finish around the rim," Zargarian said. "Depending on how fast he acclimates to this environment and this school, he'll be able to give us some big minutes this year."
In addition to targeting Pasadena, the Falcons figure to have their hands full often during league play with Muir returning plenty of players from its CIF runner-up squad and Burbank expected to maintain its competitive form of recent seasons.
Also in the running is Glendale, which surged back into third place in league last year after missing the playoffs the year before and has as much depth and experience as anyone, with nine seniors on the roster.
"We have to prove that that's the case," Glendale Coach Steve Snodgress said of the Nitros being ready to enter the league-title conversation. "We have to beat some people we're not supposed to beat. I think until teams prove they can beat [Pasadena and CV] those teams get the nod."
Leading the way will be senior center David Yetenikyan and senior forward Sevan Pogosyan.
"They're kind of a one-two punch for us," Snodgress said. "We expect those two kids to lead us in scoring, David, certainly, in rebounding."