After preseason tournaments and scrimmages, high school basketball will begin in earnest this week around the state. Here are some of the story lines to watch this season in the Midlands:
Can No. 1 Blythewood live up to hype?
There definitely is a buzz surrounding the Blythewood boys basketball team this year.
The Bengals are ranked No. 1 in Class 4A for the first time in school history. Blythewood has a talented roster, which includes Navy signee Eli Lake, Keith Matthews, Cameron Wormack and Trae Churn.
4A Midlands girls dominance
Since 2006, a girls team from the Midlands has won the Class 4A championship, and there is good chance that trend will continue this season.
Spring Valley, Irmo and Dutch Fork were ranked in the top of the Class 4A coaches poll. The Vikings are the defending state champions, and return a pair of Division I signees in 4A Player of the Year Christian Hithe and Shantay Taylor.
Seventh’s senior season
Seventh Woods burst on the scene as an eighth grader, and has been one of the most recognizable high school players not only in the Midlands, but across the country.
After signing with North Carolina earlier this month, Woods will finish his senior season and look to lead Hammond to its second straight SCISA Class 3A championship.
Chick-fil-A and Bojangles’ Bash
High school fans in the Midlands will be treated to two strong tournaments in December.
The Bojnagles’ Bash will be held Dec. 10-12 at Ridge View High School and feature 10 teams from South Carolina, two from Florida and one from North Carolina.
The Chick-fil-A Classic at Richland Northeast is ranked as one of the best high school tournaments, according to MaxPreps, and this year’s field is one of the best ever.
Led by powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, the field also includes Greensboro Day (North Carolina), Huntington Prep (West Virginia), Oldsmar Christian, Pace Academy (Atlanta) and Roman Catholic in Pennsylvania.
Life without Shuler for Irmo
The Irmo basketball team will look different this season with the departure of Devontae Shuler.
The junior transferred to Oak Hill Academy in August, leaving the Yellow Jackets without their top scorer from last year and one of the state’s top prospects for the Class of 2017.
But Irmo returns three starters from last season, and still will be in the mix to make a deep postseason run in Tim Whipple’s 35th season.
Dreher/LR girls look to return to form
For the first time since 2011, neither Dreher nor Lower Richland played for Class 3A girls state championship.
Both lost to Lancaster in the playoffs, with the Blue Devils’ defeat coming in the Upper State final.
However, both Dreher and LR return talented rosters with Division I players, and will be in the mix to be playing in Colonial Life Arena in March.
Keenan boys will look to repeat as Class 2A champions and continue their recent run.
Since 2010, the Raiders have won three state titles and appear to have the players, led by junior Tarik Simmons, to make a run at a fourth title.
"We anticipate on being very good and got a lot of swagger going on with the guys returning," Keenan coach Zach Norris said. "The main thing for us is keeping our composure and developing some leaders on senior class."
Flora goes for 3 in a row
A.C. Flora boys made it to the state championship game in Joshua Staley’s first season, and will be strong contenders to make their third straight title appearance overall this year.
The Falcons lost three of their top players from last year in James Murray Boyles, Rion Davis and Karl Gamble, but return the likes of Kendale Hampton, James Reese and will have the addition of talented freshman Christian Brown.
Gray Collegiate looks for strong second season
Gray Collegiate’s boys team won 17 games in its inaugural season last year, and finished second in a Christmas tournament in Las Vegas. GCA got off to a strong start this season by winning the Lower Richland Tip-off tournament this week.
The Eagles aren’t eligible for postseason play until next season when they move up to Class 2A, but will play a challenging schedule with a home-and-home against 4A Northwestern, games at the Bojangles’ Bash and the Southeast National Hoops Festival in North Carolina.
The Midlands is filled with a talented group of seniors, but there is a young group of freshmen and sophomores that is receiving plenty of attention.
Among that group on the boys’ side are Gray Collegiate’s Juwan Gary, Flora’s Christian Brown, Richland Northeast’s Alex Caldwell and Spring Valley’s Tommy Bruner.
On the girls side, Spring Valley freshman Taylor Lewis and Ashley Williamson both have Division I offers. Williamson is listed as one of the top prospects in the country for the Class of 2019, according to ESPN.