Get ready to break out those “City Section Rules!” signs in high school boys’ basketball this season.
Westchester, Woodland Hills Taft and Los Angeles Fairfax are eager to take on any and all challengers. They’ve got veteran coaches, talent-filled starting lineups and college prospects used to playing on television and in sold-out gyms.
They could take turns beating each other during the regular season, the City Section playoffs and the Southern California Regional playoffs.
A look at the top five teams in the Southland:
Fairfax (28-5): The arrival of 6-foot-10 transfer Renardo Sidney from Lakewood Artesia has thrust the Lions back into the favorite’s role. Senior guard Chris Solomon and junior guard Lance Bailey distinguished themselves during the summer, and 6-6 junior Solomon Hill has gained in strength and skill.
The one question mark about the Lions is at point guard, after teams exploited that weakness during the summer when Sidney was not on the team.
Practice began for City teams Nov. 5, so look for Coach Harvey Kitani to try to build the kind of chemistry that was so important to last season’s state Division I championship team.
“We’re very inexperienced and we have a lot of areas to improve on. There’s two teams in the City that return their whole teams, and they’re good,” Kitani said.
Westchester (26-7): The Comets return virtually all of the top players from a team that couldn’t beat Fairfax last season in the City final and Southern California Regional final. The guards, Oscar Bellfield and SMU-bound Jarred Dubois, are as good as they come. USC-bound sophomore forward Dwayne Polee Jr., who has grown to 6-8, is ready to become a major offensive force, and 6-6 Cordell Hadnot has gotten better, too.
“We’re going to be good,” Coach Ed Azzam said.
The Comets have nine players competing for extensive playing time, and that kind of depth in the past enabled Azzam to use a pressure man-to-man defense that was a team trademark when Westchester won its six City titles this decade.
Western League games against Fairfax on Jan. 18 at Fairfax and Feb. 6 at Westchester ought to prepare both teams for the City playoffs. And an improving Palisades team also should give the Comets plenty of competition.
Taft (4-20): It was an unpleasant February for Taft Coach Derrick Taylor, whose team lost out on participating in the City playoffs after having to forfeit 16 games because of two ineligible players. The Toreadors seem to have abandoned the transfer game this season, and are sticking with players who have been in their program for three and four years.
Taylor is blunt about his team’s potential.
“I believe I have arguably the best starting five in the state of California,” he said.
Leading the way is senior point guard Larry Drew Jr., who has committed to North Carolina and has been starting since he was a freshman when he took over for Jordan Farmar. Senior Bryce Smith is a three-point specialist, and junior Justin Hawkins has already committed to Nevada Las Vegas. Senior Eugene Phelps is a 6-6 leaper who might be one of the most improved players in the City Section, and junior Terran Carter is a 6-5 rebounding machine.
The Toreadors have the quickness and shooting ability to score at will, but their rebounding against top teams will determine if they can get past the likes of Fairfax and Westchester.
Santa Ana Mater Dei (33-4): The defending state Division II champions must replace all-time school scoring leader Taylor King, now at Duke, but the Wear twins, juniors David and Travis, appear ready to step up into starring roles.
The 6-10 Wear brothers worked on improving their strength and inside scoring skills during the summer. “You’re going to see two very dominant players,” Coach Gary McKnight said.
Although the Monarchs had trouble at times during the summer against quick, athletic teams, it will be up to point guard Blake Arnet and versatile Jamaal Trice to provide consistency at both ends of the court. Junior Andy Brown, who’s 6-8, should average in double figures scoring.
The challenge for Mater Dei is finding players who are going to be as competitive as King was. Teammates used to stand around and wait for King to rebound or score. Now others must step forward, with the Wears given the first chance.
Compton (26-7): Looming as a strong challenger to Mater Dei is Compton, which returns perhaps the most exciting player in Southern California in 6-6 DeMar DeRozan, whose athleticism and leaping ability make him an unusual talent.
“He’s the best I’ve seen,” Compton Coach Tony Thomas said.
DeRozan has worked on becoming a more consistent outside shooter. Compton’s success could be determined by the play of 6-10 senior center Edgar Garibay, who’s capable of being a standout if he can stay out of foul trouble.
Compton lost to Mater Dei, 76-66, in last season’s Southern Section Division I-AA semifinals and know that the Monarchs probably will be standing in the way of a possible championship.
“We just have to jell at the right time,” Thomas said.
There are other teams with the potential to break through to the elite level, including Compton Dominguez, Santa Margarita, Cerritos Gahr, Pasadena, Pomona Diamond Ranch and North Hollywood Campbell Hall.