IN A YEAR with Inter-Ac League basketball offering no obvious favorite, Malvern Prep appears deserving of being labeled a "slightie."

So, how does that sit with coach Jim Rullo?

First, let us tell you that he did remain seated. Didn't stand up and run off while begging for another school to be bull's-eyed.

"That's obviously flattering," Rullo said. "It's a testament to how we played last year, and to the fact that we have good players coming back. But the kids have to understand: That gets us nothing."

For the most part, six guys did the playing last year as the Friars went 7-3 in league play and 22-9 overall. Five are back.

The lone senior is point guard Ryan Creighton, who'll be playing lacrosse at North Carolina. DeQuann Walker, Lamon Church and Tracy Peal are juniors while Brendan Kilpatrick is just a sophomore.

They have some respectable playmates, as well.

"I see us playing eight-nine-10 guys," Rullo said. "That's going to be new for us. We have the people to do it and since we're pretty athletic and we'll be going at a faster pace, it makes sense to work in more guys.

"The challenge is to still take sensible shots . . . Not that I'm a control freak. I just want us to play the game the right way while we're doing it faster."

In its 42nd consecutive school year with the same six teams, the I-A still uses only the regular season to decide its champion.

"Really, that makes every game a championship game," Rullo said. "You have to approach things that way. The hard thing is getting young players to understand that.

"Through December, we're tackling a very challenging nonleague schedule. It's all designed to get us ready for the Inter-Ac."

Once there, the Friars will find that their strongest competition will come from two of the academies - Germantown and Chestnut Hill.

GA features Bucknell-bound Cameron Ayers, the league's returning MVP, and backcourt mate Austin Curry. Chestnut Hill has a time-tested duo in Pat Connaghan and Todd Cramer.

The league's annual opening tripleheader will be played Jan. 9 at Cabrini College.

There are no new coaches this season; Penn Charter's Jim "Flipper" Phillips is back from a 1-year sabbatical. *