Ask Herman Harried where this Lake Clifton boys basketball team ranks among the other 10 he has coached, like the one that captured a state title in 1999, and watch him shake his prematurely gray head and say, "It's too early."
Practically in the same breath, however, Harried will say, "But they're not doing bad so far." Then, Harried smiles broadly, as if to say, "I've got something special here and hardly anyone else realizes it."
Of course, a No. 2 ranking in The Sun's most recent poll says that someone realizes how good the Lakers (15-1) are. But while many of the area's top teams have a marquee player to lead them, Lake Clifton has thrived on being a group that doesn't necessarily wow you individually, but can overwhelm you collectively.
"I like the chemistry and camaraderie with them," Harried said after the Lakers' 82-32 win over Southside on Friday. "There's not one main focus person on this team. We all share the ball, and we play to win."
To wit, senior guard Antoine Allen, who might be as close to a name player as Lake Clifton has, missed Friday's game with an undisclosed illness.
Sure, the score would tell you that the Lakers didn't really need him to beat the undermanned Panthers, but the impression is that this team is better as a whole than any of its parts is.
"We're in a comfortable position, but I don't want us to get too comfortable," said point guard Derrious Gilmore, who had 21 points in Friday's win. "We're in a good position and all we have to do is keep working hard and playing and we should be good."
Harried, 41, a member of the 1982-83 Dunbar team that won a mythical national championship, said his players practice as if they are 0-20 with miles to go to get better.
That's probably why he called a 30-second timeout 11 seconds into Friday's game after the Panthers scored on an alley-oop pass just after the opening tip-off.
Things didn't get a whole lot better through the rest of the first quarter; Lake Clifton could only muster a six-point lead over a team with just two seniors and a lineup filled with freshmen and sophomores. However, the Lakers turned the full fury of their defense loose on Southside in the second quarter, outscoring them 21-4.
With the machine rolling at full steam by the end of the third, Harried told Gilmore, a terrific 5-foot-10 junior, to stop being so generous and to start shooting.
Gilmore complied, launching five three-pointers from just inside midcourt, each barely stirring the nets going through.
"My coach told me to get my team up and I had set them up enough," Gilmore said with a grin. "Now, it was time for me to get mine. I just started taking my shots, some NBA three-pointers. I just started stepping across half court and taking the shots and knocking them down."
Perimeter shooting looks to be the Lakers' Achilles' heel, so the more Gilmore and Allen can hit, the better their chances of returning to the state semifinals for the first time in five years.
It doesn't hurt to be able to dump the ball to junior Cleveland Melvin, a rapidly improving 6- -8 center, who had a game-high 25 points Friday on a variety of moves around the basket.
Melvin has soft hands and he generally catches anything thrown to him in the low post. He anchors Lake Clifton's attacking, pressing defense -- perhaps the best in the area.
"Our focus is to continue to improve and to do it the right way, no matter who we're playing and what the opponent's record is or what their size is," Harried said. "We want to do it the right way."
The right way could keep Harried smiling all the way to another state title.