Teams will have to go through Butler, who is the favorite to not only win the conference, but maybe a state championship after making the Sweet 16, Great 8 and Final 4 of the playoffs in the last three seasons. They only lost once last year – to eventual state champion Northwest Guilford – and are loaded with talent once again. Independence seems to always be in the hunt and will be once again with the return from injury of Jamarius Burton. Hickory Ridge won 20 games last year as a 3A school, and will be in the mix, as will Rocky River, who has one of the state’s top sophomores in Jaden Springer. East Meck finished third last year and should be even a little better. That can be said for Myers Park as well, who should take a pretty big step up this season. Porter Ridge will be better than last year’s nine wins, but probably not ready to make a major jump, and Garinger will struggle in a very good league from top to bottom.
Coach: Myron Lowery, fourth season (77-11, 292-248 overall)
2016-17 Record: 30-1, 14-0 Southwestern 4A
Returning Starters: 2
Butler has been on a three-year run of dominance, having reached the Sweet 16, Great 8 and Final 4 of the state playoffs in the past few seasons under coach Myron Lowery. They have won three straight Southwestern 4A titles and own a 22-game home win streak.
They’ll look to keep that going with 6-6 conference player of the year Gerrale Gates. The New Orleans commit averaged 14 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game as a junior.
All-conference Queens University of Charlotte commit DJ Little is back after averaging nearly 14 points and three steals per game.
The Bulldogs must replace the other three starters, but will be helped by a pair of talented transfers.
Raquan Brown comes from Rocky River where he was a two-time all-league selection. The junior has offers from Hampton and the Charlotte 49ers. He averaged 14 points, eight rebounds and six assists a season ago.
Isaiah Richards comes from Queens, N.Y. where he was a four-star recruit and ranked the No. 12 prospect by ESPN New York. He brings size (6-9) and a physical style and is drawing heavy recruiting interest.
Butler has plenty of talent for another deep run in the playoffs, but has to blend old and new pieces to reach their immense potential.
Coach: Preston Davis, eighth season (106-104)
2016-17 Record: 22-7, 10-2 in Southwestern 4A
Returning Starters: 0
On paper, it appears that the Patriots will struggle after losing all five starters and their top five leading scorers, but looks can be deceiving. Coach Preston Davis has guided his alma mater to 18 or more wins in four of the past five seasons and will have this team where it needs to be by the end of the year.
One key is the return of Jamarius Burton, who missed all of last season due to injury. In 2015-16, he averaged 14 points, eight rebounds and five assists for Berry and transferred to Independence before last year. He has offers from Penn State, Hampton, Virginia Commenwealth, Kent State and La Salle. He will be the catalyst.
Junior Matthew Smith averaged six points and nearly six rebounds per game, and at 6-6, he gives the Patriots an inside presence.
Junior AJ McKee is also back and contributed 5.4 points and two rebounds per game as a sophomore.
Junior guard Raja Milton averaged three points and nearly three assists per game and will team with senior backcourt mate Jordan Mobley, who averaged four points and an assist per game, to give Independence some more scoring power.
Expect the Patriots to be right in the thick of the Southwestern 4A race once again.
Coach: Jason Moseley, first season
2016-17 Record: 18-11, 6-6 in Southwestern 4A
Returning Starters: 2
The Ravens lost double-digit scorers Mikey Maddox (Myers Park) and Raquan Brown (Butler) but have plenty left to give new coach Jason Moseley enough to work with.
Jaden Springer is one of the state’s top sophomores and a big-time talent. As a freshman, the 6-3 combo guard averaged 21.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, five assists and nearly a block a game. With him having to score even more and carry the Ravens this season, expect him to have an even bigger year.
Senior small forward Marcus Evans averaged 6.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game, but expect those numbers to considerably increase.
Darlinstone Dubar is a 6-4 wing who didn’t play much during the regular season, but still averaged five points per game. Dubar made his way in the playoffs a season ago and will be a key to how well the Ravens do this season.
Another key is Mallard Creek transfer Jordan Campbell, who was an all-I-Meck 4A selection with the Mavs. The senior combo guard averaged 19.5 points, three assists and two steals per game, so he can light up the scoreboard in a hurry.
The Ravens have two bonafide stars in Campbell and Springer and they will determine how for the team goes this year. In a loaded Southwestern 4A, Rocky River has enough star power to be one of the top teams, but most overcome the losses of key guys and find some other rotation guys to give them quality minutes. If they can do that, this team has a chance to be very good.
Coach: Scott Taylor, second season (27-72)
2016-17 Record: 11-14, 3-9 in Southwestern 4A
Returning Starters: 2
The Mustangs struggled down the stretch last season with a 2-9 finish that included five straight losses to close the year after a more than promising start. They also lost quite a bit from that team, including six of their top nine scorers, five of their top seven rebounders and five of their top nine rebounders.
There will be a lot of turnover this season for second-year coach Scott Taylor, who came to the Mustangs after three seasons at Providence, but all hope is not lost that they can rebound.
Senior guard John Ingram is Myers Park’s top returning player and should have a huge year. Last season, he averaged nine points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the floor. Not necessarily a 3-point shooter, Ingram has a great touch around the basket and will get lots of chances this year.
Junior forward Duwe Farris is receiving Division I interest from a number of programs including Columbia, Princeton, Penn, UNCW, Elon, Belmont and Lipscom. Farris, who is 6-6, averaged four points and over three rebounds per game in a limited role last season, but will be counted on to provide much more this season.
The Mustangs are also counting on senior guard Seth Capizzi, who scored two points a game last year as a reserve, but will get more chances this year.
Aside from those three, the Mustangs don’t have anyone else who appeared in more than 16 games a season ago. It may take some time for them to click, but an increase in wins isn’t out of the question this year.