The NCHSAA high school basketball regular season has tipped off. Which players and teams will emerge as the area’s best this season? Can anyone make a deep postseason run? Here are questions that need to be answered about local boys’ and girls’ basketball entering the season:
Can Cards fly in Big Carolina?
The Jacksonville High boys missed out on the playoffs last season, despite going 8-3 overall and finishing second in the Coastal 3-A Conference, including two wins over league champion West Carteret.
What hurt the Cardinals was two losses to Havelock, which tied for third with Northside. Jacksonville looks to return to the playoffs, but will have to qualify in the new Big Carolina 3-A/4-A Conference, which includes South Central, which went 13-1 last season, New Bern, J.H. Rose and D.H. Conley.
Jacksonville beat New Bern two seasons ago, but has not played any of the Greenville-area teams since the Cardinals were in the same conference with them in 2013. The Cardinals will not tip off their season until football is done playing since nine of 11 players play football.
Can Vikings claim the Coastal?
Coaches for the White Oak boys acknowledge NCHSAA realignment benefitted the football team as the Vikings finished second.
Can the basketball team also finish near the top of the standings -- or even contend with West Carteret for this season’s Coastal 3-A Conference title? The Vikings showed their youth last season by going 3-8, which snapped a streak of four consecutive double-digit win totals.
Who leads for Northside?
Seniors Ronnie Thompson and Aaron Oates combined to score 61% of Northside’s points last season. But who will be the go-to players this season as the Monarchs rebound from last season’s 6-4 effort, which included losses in the final three games.
The Monarchs no longer have any players from the teams that combined to go 59-1, win the state 2-A title in 2017 and advance to the state 3-A final in 2018. This is also Kendrick Hall’s third season as coach.
Can East Duplin, Southwest compete in ECC?
Let’s get the elephant in the room addressed.
East Duplin and Southwest will find it tough to win the East Central 2-A Conference with state power Kinston in the league. But, can the Panthers and contend with James Kenan, Wallace-Rose Hill, North Lenoir and South Lenoir?
East Duplin was 1-3 against James Kenan and Wallace-Rose Hill last season, 3-2 in 2020 and 2-5 in 2019. Southwest improved some last season, going 2-10 following an 0-22 season in 2020.
Mr. Jones is going to be a big star
Swansboro senior Gerren Jones has quietly emerged as one of the area’s better players, having made all-area his sophomore and junior seasons.
That, despite the Pirates dropping their final 10 games last season to finish 1-10 and going 9-17 in 2020. Swansboro will certainly look to Jones again this season as they hope to compete in the Coastal 3-A Conference and make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
How the move to 3-A affects others
The Coastal 3-A Conference also includes Croatan, Dixon and Richlands – three schools that moved up from 2-A.
Croatan went 8-5 last season under first-year coach Will Sutton, Dixon went 4-9 in Bernie Poole’s final year as coach and Richlands was 1-11.
But like football, the new Coastal Conference offers competitive balance, which is good news for these teams.
Is Lejeune back?
Lejeune will have a basketball season after the Department of Defense Education Activity did not permit its schools on military installations to play last season because of COVID-19.
The Devilpups were 12-12 in 2020.
Can Living Water prove itself?
On paper, Living Water Christian School should not have many issues in the N.C. Christian Athletic Conference schedule, but the Warriors are challenging themselves more with non-conference games against NCHSAA member Washington and NCISAA school Greenfield Academy.
Competing against those quality programs could put Living Water more in the conversations of which Onslow teams are the best this season.
Who rules the Big Carolina girls race?
Can the Jacksonville girls win the Big Carolina 3-A/4-A Conference title?
While the Cardinals finished second behind Swansboro in the Coastal 3-A Conference last season, Jacksonville returns enough talent to continue its long-term success.
Senior Cydney Lowe and sophomore Ama Baldwin are two of Onslow County’s better returning players who could give the Cardinals a chance, especially since J.H. Rose (2-10) and New Bern (5-7) struggled last season.
However, Jacksonville will need to deal with D.H. Conley, which returns its top three scorers from last season’s 12-1 team, along South Central, which was 10-2.
There's also a question of which direction Northside will go. The Monarchs were the county's best program for several years but only had two wins a season ago.
Can Panthers, Stallions keep surging?
East Duplin is 45-3 in East Central 2-A Conference play the last three seasons while Southwest is 20-13 overall in Chris Williams’ two seasons as head coach, including 11-2 and a conference title last season.
It was the Stallions’ first time above .500 since 2012.
The return of two of three top scorers, in Armani Reid and Yamorie Hardison, could make the Stallions one of the conference's top teams.
East Duplin lost its top three scorers from last season, including top scorer Amiya Hall, a sophomore last year who moved out of the area.
It won’t be easy for either team; the new East Central features strong teams like Kinston (9-4 last year) and North Lenoir (9-2).
Who is Coastal Conference favorite?
Swansboro won the Coastal 3-A Conference title last season, the Pirates’ first league crown since 2002, and hopes to record a third consecutive winning season.
But the Pirates graduated their top three scorers, including area player of the year in Noelle Miller.
Then there is Croatan, which won the Coastal 8 1-A/2-A Conference title in 2019 and 2020 and was second to Southwest last year before defeating the Stallions in the second round of the playoffs. The Cougars have gone 13-1 the previous two seasons against current Coastal Conference squads.
Richlands looks to be near the top of the standings with the return of senior Mallory Foy, but the Wildcats have graduated a lot of other key players.
White Oak has held its own the last two seasons, while Dixon entered the season looking for its first win since Feb. 7, 2020. The Bulldogs got that Nov. 23 with a 39-12 win over Jones Senior.
Can Living Water win again?
Living Water is 41-4 with two N.C. Christian Athletic Conference tournament titles the last two seasons.
A lot of the Warriors’ success has come thanks to junior Ma’Nyah Thomas-Wilson, a two-time all-area player who averaged 16.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season and 20.1 points and four rebounds as a freshman.
Chris Miller can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jdnsports.
This article originally appeared on The Daily News: How Jacksonville-area high school basketball looks entering 2021-22 season