The MSA A Conference can boast of having eight teams in The Evening Sun preseason Top 20. That even may be a few less than usual, but the top two, Dunbar and Southern, are exceptionally strong and Walbrook may not be far behind.
Dunbar showed just how strong it is over the weekend, routing Coolidge of D.C. 75-58 Friday night and then Washington's top-ranked team, Dunbar of D.C., 84-68 Saturday night to win the James Kenner Tip-off Tournament. Southern lost to the same D.C. powers, but represented itself well, falling to Dunbar of D.C. in overtime and to Coolidge by only a basket, 64-62, in the consolation game.
Elsewhere, Cardinal Gibbons will battle St. Frances-Charles Hall for Catholic League honors. The rest of the league is closely balanced.
Annapolis is set to defend its state Class 4A and Anne Arundel County championships, while Woodlawn will be pushed by Dulaney, Catonsville and Parkville in Baltimore County 4A/3A.
Overlea and Owings Mills are the teams to beat in Baltimore County 2A/1A.
Hammond, a Class 2A state finalist last season, will be challenged by Oakland Mills, the defending state Class 3A titlist, and Wilde Lake for Howard County honors.
Joppatowne is a good bet to defend its state Class 1A championship, but must get healthy to challenge for the Harford County title against Aberdeen and Edgewood.
Edmondson seems ready to grab MSA B Conference honors, but Carver, Gilman and Mervo will be in the hunt.
St. Paul's and Park are the top teams in the C Conference.
Other teams to keep an eye on -- rate them sleepers -- Mount St. Joseph, Severna Park, Southern-AA, Forest Park, Douglass and Frederick.
The Top 20 with last year's records and final rankings in parentheses:
1 Dunbar (22-4, No. 2)
* The Poets of coach Pete Pompey return The Evening Sun Player of the Year, junior forward Donta Bright (6 feet 6), as well as All-Metro second team senior guard Terrance Alexander (6-3) and All-Metro third-team junior guard Michael Lloyd (6-2). Other key performers last season were senior forward Kevin Washington (6-5) and Phil Booth (6-4), a sophomore. The Poets can score, but must improve defense and rebounding to retain their lofty preseason ranking. Alabama transfer Kevin Ward, a 6-8 sophomore, may provide help in both those areas.
2 ,12 Southern-Balto (21-3, No. 1)
* Coach Meredith Smith is not sure his team shouldn't be top-ranked. "Dunbar has its entire team back, but I'd like to think we're right there and will be ahead by the end of the season," says Smith, who welcomes back senior forwards John Salley (6-7) and Che Evans (6-4) plus All-Metro first-team guard David Cason (9.2 assists per game) and a taller (6-6) Kwame Evans. Salley is a four-year veteran who has struggled to live up to the high expectations others have had for him. "I believe he's ready to reach his fullest potential," says Smith.
3 Annapolis (23-3, No. 5)
* The Panthers will run the same road that took them to their first state Class 4A championship under coach John Brady last year, using the run-and-gun style Brady borrowed from Loyola Marymount. The path may be a bit rockier, but Brady can count on seniors Dennis Edwards (6-5) and Delmore Edwards (6-6) plus junior Rob Wooster (6-5) for scoring. "They all can average 20 points a game," says Brady. In fact, Edwards had 50 and Howard 28 in a 110-101 win over Parkdale last week. If senior center Jon Holden (6-9) controls the rebounding game, the Panthers will run a long way again.
4 Walbrook (14-8, No. 3)
* The Warriors of coach Gus Herrington return a pair of quality players in senior Stevie Thomas (6-7) and junior Jermaine Porter (6-5). The latter seems recovered from a rare blood disorder that caused him to shed 40 pounds over the summer. Porter averaged 18 points a game last season. Junior swing guard Rodney Beasley (6-2) transferred in from Dunbar and will beef up the backcourt that returns holdovers James Henderson and William Tyler.
5 St. Frances-Charles Hall (21-9, No. 6)
* Devin Gray (6-6) has college recruiters drooling over his averages last season of 23.9 points and 12.3 rebounds, which earned him second-team All-Metro honors. Coach William Wells also returns senior Antoine Wingo, juniors Mike Smith (6-5), Phil Dixon and sophomore Eric Carroll (6-3), an honorable-mention All-Metro pick as a freshman. The experience and talent make the Panthers the team to beat in the Catholic League.
6 Lake Clifton (12-7, No. 4)
* The Lakers may be down a bit as coach Charlie Moore returns veteran senior guards Curtis Sheppard and Ronald Van Hook and not much else in experience or height. "Our motto is 'Project Respect', " says Moore, who sees a lot of potential in the likes of freshman Cornell Ward (6-5) and sophomore Robert Brown (6-5). Richmond transfer Roger Battle (6-4) should help as well as junior varsity grads Keith Thompson and Carl Flager. "The key is not getting the players to work hard, but in getting them to like working hard," says Moore.
7 Cardinal Gibbons (18-17, No. 11)