There's a lot of excitement and hype surrounding the Penn Wood boys' basketball team.

The Panthers are the nation's 40th-ranked team, according to ESPN Rise. USA Today lists them as the ninth-ranked team in the East region. And they're second in Southeastern Pennsylvania in The Inquirer's preseason rankings.

That's not bad considering Penn Wood isn't even the depending Del-Val League champion.

"To me, the hype is meaningless," Patriots coach Clyde Jones said, "because we haven't accomplished" anything.

True.

Rankings in early December, however, are based on a team's potential.

Jones may not admit it, but Penn Wood has the potential to contend for the PIAA Class AAAA state title.

The Patriots return four starters and 11 of 13 players from a team that finished last season with a 23-9 record.

Penn Wood will benefit from having services of two transfers, sophomore swingman Aaron Brown (Roman Catholic) and junior guard Will Brown (Monsignor Bonner).

Having a deep team is a luxury not shared by the Patriots' Del-Val League opponents.

Defending Class AAAA state champion Chester graduated four starters. Glen Mills, Academy Park and Interboro all lost three starters apiece.

Chichester brings back several key players, including standout senior forward Dan Clapp. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they are not quite as talented as the Patriots. Very few teams are.

Senior shooting guard Duane Johnson, junior point guard Tyree Johnson, sophomore power forward Shawn Oakman, and senior post player Thomas White are Penn Wood's returning starters.

At 6-foot-5, Duane Johnson creates matchup problems.

Known in previous seasons as a slasher, he has worked on extending his shooting range this summer.

"Duane has also become just a phenomenal defender on the perimeter," Jones said. "And he's able to block shots and rebound."

Tyree Johnson is a tenacious player. Oakman, at 6-8, has the potential to be a beast. White, at 6-8, is arguably the league most-improved player.

Aaron Brown will join the four in the starting lineup.

But . . .

"I might have four or five different starting lineups," Jones said.

That's because his team is so deep. The Panthers expect to have a 10-player rotation.

One player in that rotation, junior Dequan Pelzer, started at shooting guard last season. Senior guard Chris White is a go-to guy off the bench.

"Chris White is one the most pure shooters and explosive scorers that we have," Jones said. "Had some really big games for them over the summer."

All of the Patriots are eager to improve upon last season's record. But even that was a little misleading.

Four of those losses came to Chester, which finished the season ranked third nationally by USA Today.

Two other setbacks came to area power Pennsbury.

"There is no substitute for the experience the kids got last year," said Jones, whose squad reached the state quarterfinals last season.

It was Penn Wood's first state playoff appearance since 1992.

"I believe," Jones said, "we have seven or eight guys who are all going to get starter minutes."

Contact staff writer Keith Pompey at 610-313-8029 or kpompey@phillynews.com.