With the turn of the new year, it’s time for local basketball teams to start turning their attention towards conference opponents as league play begins to tip off. Here’s a look ahead at how the various conferences are shaping up.
It’s looking like it’ll be a two-horse race to the top for the girls Tri-County Conference championship this year, with reigning regular season champ Harnett Central (9-1) and tournament champ Union Pines (8-5) as the prohibited favorites to win the league once again.
Central currently has the edge in MaxPreps rankings, coming in at No. 78 in the state and No. 20 in 3A, while UP sits at No. 186 in the state and No. 48 in 3A. Rankings won’t matter for long though, as the two teams are set to play each other in their conference opener on Friday, Jan. 10.
Outside of those two, no one else in the conference has a winning record, though Triton (4-4) has flirted with that line all season long. The Hawks (No. 287 in state, 65 in 3A) have looked solid at times, hanging with good teams like Overhills (a 44-40 loss in the season opener) and Smithfield-Selma (lost 45-33 on the road, won 44-29 at home). If they can find a bit more consistency down the stretch and stay healthy, they’ll be likely favorites to finish third and could maybe even steal a game or two from Central and UP.
After those three teams, the rest of the conference has combined for just four wins outside of league play. It’ll likely be a rebuilding year for Western Harnett (2-10), Southern Lee (1-11) and Lee County (1-11).
The Tri-County boys race has been dominated by Southern Lee in recent years, but this season it looks like it could be wide open. No one in the conference currently has a winning record, though most of the league is right around .500.
Harnett Central (5-5), Triton (5-5) and Southern Lee (4-7) are all nearly dead even in MaxPreps rankings. Central currently has the edge at No. 280 in the state and No. 61 in 3A, while Triton is No. 282 in the state and No. 63 in 3A and Southern Lee is No. 283 in the state and No. 64 in 3A.
All three teams have shown flashes of promise against stiff competition but have also lost some head-scratchers. Finding consistency will be key if anyone is going to emerge and take control of the championship race.
Don’t count out the rest of the league, though. Union Pines (5-8, No. 301 in state and No. 67 in 3A) isn’t far behind, and Lee County (4-9, No. 369 in state and No. 84 in 3A) and Western Harnett (2-10, No. 433 in state and No. 97 in 3A have given scares to some good teams.
Greater Neuse girls
It’s still early in the season, but there already seems to be a fairly clear pecking order in the girls portion of the Greater Neuse Conference.
At the top is Clayton (9-3), currently ranked No. 98 in the state and No. 25 in 3A. Right behind is Smithfield-Selma (7-3), currently ranked No. 138 in the state and No. 38 in 3A.
Don’t count out defending champs East Wake (6-6). Though the Warriors are currently ranked No. 161 in the state and No. 42 in 3A, they’ve proven they can beat top level teams, knocking off Harnett Central 68-53.
Outside of those three teams, it looks like it’ll be a three-way battle for fourth place between West Johnston (5-8, No. 290 in state and No. 66 in 3A), South Johnston (3-5, No. 346 in state and No. 77 in 3A) and Cleveland (4-8, No. 385 in state and No. 87 in 3A).
Greater Neuse boys
After a bit of a down year last season, the Greater Neuse boys race is stacked this year, with four teams looking like legitimate contenders.
Thus far, the two favorites look to be Clayton (10-2) and South Johnston (9-1). The Comets, led by senior B.J. Freeman’s 23.1 points per game, hold the edge in rankings, coming in at No. 67 in the state and No. 18 in 3A. But South, led by reigning Greater Neuse Player of the Year C.J. Ray, isn’t far behind at No. 80 in the state and No. 22 in 3A. Both teams will square off in the conference opener on Friday, Jan. 10.
And while Clayton and South look to be the top two teams, don’t count out Cleveland (10-2) or East Wake (7-4). The Rams, No. 118 in the state and No. 29 in 3A, is a team that’s still gelling together with newcomer Walter Ghaffar (14 points per game) still figuring out his fit in the team. And the Warriors, No. 132 in the state and No. 30 in 3A, are still the defending regular season champs. They’re led by junior power forward Javon Mercer, who’s averaging 20.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.
With those four teams running the show at the top, it’ll likely be a rebuilding year for West Johnston (4-8) and Smithfield-Selma (1-9), who simply don’t have the same star power as the rest of the conference.
East Central girls
As of now, it’s shaping up to be a two-team race in the girls portion of the East Central Conference.
East Duplin (6-2) and Midway (7-1) currently look like the favorites to win the league. The Panthers are currently ranked No. 168 in the state and No. 31 in 2A, while the Raiders are ranked No. 192 in the state and No. 40 in 2A. East Duplin has two go-to scorers in senior shooting guard Alizay Benson (10.5 points per game) and freshman small forward Amiaya Hall (10.5 points per game), while Midway is a bit more balanced with sophomore point guard Kris McKoy (9.1 points per game) leading the way.
After that, everyone else looks to be fighting for third place. Clinton (4-4), James Kenan (5-3) look to be the favorites to get that third spot, while Goldsboro (2-4), Spring Creek (3-6) and Wallace-Rose Hill (0-3) appear to be the basement dwellers.
East Central boys
Goldsboro (7-1) is above and beyond the clear favorite to win the East Central boys championship this year. The Cougars are currently ranked No. 60 in the state and No. 9 in 2A.
After that, it looks like it’ll be a battle for second place. East Duplin (6-2) is the next highest in the rankings, coming in at No. 335 in the state and No. 61 in 2A, although the Panthers did lose to Wallace-Rose Hill (2-4) 62-53 in the Duplin County Christmas Tournament. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 438 in the state and No. 85 in 2A.
Also in the mix are Spring Creek (3-6), James Kenan (5-5) and Midway (4-3), while little can be said about Clinton (1-4) who is unranked after getting off to a late start due to a long football season.
There could be multiple state champions in the girls portion of the Sandhills Conference this season.
Fayetteville Christian (8-1, 2-0) looks to be the favorite to win the league, currently ranked No. 107 in the state and No. 3 in NCISAA 3A. Trinity Christian (8-2, 2-0) isn’t too far behind, ranked No. 145 in the state and No. 2 in NCISAA 1A.
Northwood Temple Academy (9-2, 1-0) is also looking solid, currently ranked No. 217 in the state and No. 8 in NCISAA 1A.
After that, it looks like teams will be battling for fourth in the conference.
Village Christian Academy (3-6, 0-2) is ranked No. 324 in the state and No. 12 in NCISAA 3A. Cape Fear Christian Academy (5-10, 0-1) is No. 437 in the state and No. 16 in NCISAA 1A. Freedom Christian Academy (3-8, 0-2) is No. 485 in the state and No. 22 in NCISAA 2A.
The Sandhills boys conference is one of the toughest leagues in the state, with five of six teams in the top 200 in state rankings, four in the top 150, three in the top 60 and two in the top 30.
At the top is Trinity Christian (13-1, 1-1), ranked No. 10 in the state and No. 1 in NCISAA 1A. Right on par is Village Christian Academy (11-2, 2-0), ranked No. 28 in the state and No. 3 in NCISAA 3A.
Not far behind is Freedom Christian Academy (13-5, 1-1), ranked No. 57 in the state and No. 4 in NCISAA 2A.
Also looking solid so far are Northwood Temple Academy (11-9, 0-1, No. 130 in state and No. 6 in NCISAA 1A) and Cape Fear Christian Academy (10-5, 1-0, No. 189 in state and No. 7 in NCISAA 1A). Even Fayetteville Christian (6-8, 0-2), the league’s likely basement dweller, is a solid team at No. 253 in the state and No. 14 in NCISAA 3A.
The girls portion of the 3A/4A Patriot Conference is extremely top-heavy.
At the top is E.E. Smith (11-1, 4-0), ranked No. 20 in the state and No. 5 in 3A. Behind them is Westover (8-2, 4-0), ranked No. 119 in the state and No. 31 in 3A.
After that, there’s a considerable drop off. Gray’s Creek (5-6, 4-2) is half a game ahead of Overhills (8-4, 3-2) for third place. South View (4-6, 2-3), Cape Fear (4-5, 2-3) and Pine Forest (3-8, 2-3) are all tied for fifth. Douglas Byrd (1-10, 1-5) and Terry Sanford (1-8, 0-4) currently sit at the bottom of the standings.
The top five in the boys portion of the 3A/4A Patriot Conference is a true gauntlet, with three teams ranked inside the top 100 in the state and two more just outside the fringe.
The team everyone is chasing is Westover (10-0, 4-0), currently ranked No. 7 in the state and No. 1 in 3A.
In the second tier are Terry Sanford (8-1, 3-1), ranked No. 61 in the state and No. 16 in 3A, and Cape Fear (6-3, 3-2), ranked No. 90 in the state and No. 24 in 3A.
Just behind those top three are Overhills (9-3, 3-2), ranked No. 102 in the state and No. 29 in 4A, and Pine Forest (8-3, 4-1), ranked No. 105 in the state and No. 32 in 4A.
There’s a wide gap between those five and the bottom four: South View (4-6, 3-2), E.E. Smith (3-7, 2-2), Gray’s Creek (3-8, 0-6) and Douglas Byrd (0-10, 0-6).
The girls portion of the Carolina Conference looks like a two-team race between Princeton (5-3), ranked No. 197 in the state and No. 19 in 1A, and Neuse Charter (4-2), ranked No. 266 in the state and No. 32 in 1A.
After that, the rest of the league has struggled so far. Lakewood (2-6, 1-0), Rosewood (1-5, 1-0), North Duplin (1-5, 0-1), Union (1-7, 0-1) and Hobbton (0-5) have combined to win just five games this season.
Princeton (6-3), ranked No. 208 in the state and No. 26 in 1A, is the prohibited favorite to win the Carolina boys championship.
Rosewood (4-2, 1-0) looks to comfortably be the second best team, ranked No. 354 in the state and No. 47 in 1A.
After that, the rest of the league is made up of stragglers. Neuse Charter (4-5), Union (2-6, 0-1), Lakewood (1-7, 0-1), North Duplin (1-7, 1-0) and Hobbton (0-6) will all be fighting for third place.