by Chris Hunt


Two games into the I-MECK 4A conference schedule, it appears the boys basketball standings have been flipped upside down from last season. Last winter’s powerhouse programs have been decimated by graduation, shuffling the deck, so to speak.



Even so, I think the I-MECK 4A is still the most talented conference in Mecklenburg County. The league’s top four teams boast a combined record of 21-3 in non-conference action – two of those losses were to teams from out of state.



Who are those top four teams, you ask?



The answers lie below in my soon-to-be famous “Two-Games-into-the-Conference-Slate-Bold Predictions” column. In it, you’ll also find the four squads I expect to finish in the I-MECK 4A basement. I’ve got all 16 teams in the conference, boys and girls, under surveillance.  We’ll start with the team I think will win the I-MECK 4A conference regular-season championship – first the boys, and then the girls.



THE BOYS



1. West Charlotte: The Lions graduated sharpshooter J.T. Terrell, who, in case you haven’t noticed, is already averaging double figures in nine games with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. The Lions finished fourth in the regular season standings last season but captured the conference tournament crown thanks to Terrell’s ridiculous scoring outburst.



This season, however, a more-balanced squad returns with a ferocious defense that allows just 50 points per game. Led by Jacoby Davis, Michael Brown, Juwan Byers and 6-foot-8 sophomore Kennedy Meeks, West Charlotte is 7-1 (2-0 in the I-MECK 4A) with wins over North Mecklenburg, West Mecklenburg, Hopewell, Harding, Independence, East Mecklenburg and Butler.



2. North Meckleburg: Next, I’ve got a surprising Vikings squad (7-1, 1-1) which finished next to last in 2009-10. It’s been well documented that North Meck lost two talented starters to Davidson Day, but the departures only have seemed to make the team a stronger, more cohesive unit. Trust me, I saw them first-hand break Myers Park’s collective hearts with a 3-point buzzer beater on Dec. 3, followed by a wild celebration. These guys love playing together. I just don’t think North Meck has enough firepower and size to sneak past West Charlotte, as proven by the Lions’ 51-40 victory over the Vikings on Dec. 14.



3. Mooresville: With a 78-72 win over Vance on Dec. 14, the Blue Devils (6-1, 2-0) answered my pressing question: who’s the third-best team in the conference? Mooresville is led by all-conference star Shawn Lester, who’s averaging more than 17.6 points and 3.6 assists per game. Isaiah Johnson is a pretty good player, who dropped 26 points on the Cougars. That’s still not enough to get my top seed, but the Blue Devils could be a pretty good dark horse this season.



4. Vance: The Cougars (6-3, 0-1) not only lost to the Blue Devils, they also lost Division I recruits Marquis Rankin (Hargrave Military Academy) and Braxton Ogbueze (United Faith) to transfer this summer. An impressive victory over a tough West Mecklenburg team proves coach Will Robinson’s squad should still be pretty good, but then again, a 49-43 loss to Harding makes me think they’ll miss Rankin and Ogbueze more than they’d like to think.


Up next are teams that don’t have a chance to win the conference, but they won’t be pushovers, either.



5. Mallard Creek: Mallard Creek (4-4, 1-1) is this year’s version of an ABA team because they have enough offensive firepower to win any game, problem is, when you live and die by the sword, your winning percentage generally hovers around the .500 mark. Six-foot-7 junior Dominique Williams has already scored 30 and 38 points this season, and Elijah Moton, Justin Gordon and Jamal White all average more than 9.0 ppg, but their 4-4 start to the season and a defense that allows 62 points a game doesn’t exactly scream consistency.



6. Hopewell and 7. Lake Norman just lost too much talent last season to compete for the title this year. The Titans (3-3, 1-1) return two players – 6-7 Elliot Pope and guard Michael Russell – that were reserves on last year’s regular season champion squad. The 2010 4A state champion Lake Norman Wildcats won’t defend their title, either. The Wildcats bring back just one starter – guard Brian Whalen – and are already 0-2 in the I-MECK 4A after an 87-72 loss to Mallard Creek.



8. Hough: The Huskies (2-6, 0-2) don’t have a senior class, but have some nice building blocks in 6-7 junior Johnny Piedmonte, freshman Jaqueaz Jackson and sophomore Drexler Clark. Junior Nick Bernado, Tyler Decker and Brandon Mobley will also contribute heavily in the future.



THE GIRLS



While the boys’ side of the I-MECK 4A standings is shaken up, the girls’ outcome will look similar to seasons past. Hopewell, Mallard Creek and Lake Norman will once again compete for the league title. Last season, they finished in a three-way tie for the regular season championship.



1. Hopewell: The Titans prevailed in the 2010 conference tournament and I think they’ll take the No. 1 seed again. Hopewell coach Gary Richmond returns four of his five starters, including 2010 Conference Player of the Year Hannah Early and all-conference forward Sharee’ Boyd. The Titans are already 7-0 (2-0) with impressive wins over Harding and Gastonia Forestview.



2. Lake Norman: The Wildcats are still talented, but a little unsettled. Lake Norman lost last season’s coach Dave Walla, up-and-coming star in Walla’s daughter Kaitlin Walla, who transferred out, and graduated six seniors from a team that won 24 games. Then again, the Wildcats (6-2, 2-0) return plenty of frontline power led by Marrissa Riley and Landyn Mannion and already own a double-digit win over North Meck, 57-47, on Dec. 10, and a 59-53 win against Mallard Creek on Dec. 14.



3. Mallard Creek: The Mavericks lost a big piece in power forward Mimi Benson, but return Amber Neely (13.1 ppg this season) and Nicole Graham (13.6 ppg). Niya Phillips is a pretty good player, too, averaging 9.3 ppg and 5.4 rpg for the Mavericks, who are 6-2 (1-1) this season. The Mavericks will be a threat for the conference’s No. 1 seed in the state playoffs.



4. North Mecklenburg: My fourth-place team, North Meck (6-2, 1-1), could be interesting this season. They have a nice blend of senior leadership in Tatum McKee, Kayla Lemke and Samantha Garst, mixed in with young players such as sophomore Jasmine Bullock and freshmen Destiny Barrino and Brianna Jones. I was going to put them third, but the loss to Lake Norman knocked them down a notch. They’ll try to pick up the tempo, which should provide some exciting action and maybe a spot in the state playoffs.



And now the girls teams that don’t have a chance:



5. Mooresville, 6. Vance and 7. West Charlotte, in that order, will struggle like last season. As you can probably tell, I’m predicting almost the same order of finish as last season … with one exception.



4. Hough: First-year program Hough could shake things up this season. Yes, I know, they start four freshmen and one sophomore, but I was really impressed with a three-point loss to Hopewell on Dec. 14 (29-26).



Point guard Anna Diggs might be the best 3-point shooter in the conference – yes, even better than Hopewell’s Hunter Meakin, who Diggs outscored head-to-head from long range, four 3-pointers to three.



I’ve got nothing but praise for the way Diggs, Courtney Carroll, Julia Brown and company play defense and there are a few I-MECK 4A coaches who wish their team had the same patience on offense. It might be rash, but I think I’ll slide Hough in between Mallard Creek and North Meck for fourth place, so move everyone below down a notch. I just don’t think the Huskies are ready to compete for the title, at least not this year.



So to recap: Boys conference race upside down; girls business as usual, except for the surprising Huskies. And to think, it just took two games to figure this whole thing out.



I hope I didn’t spoil the basketball season for you.