Before the games are played, the games are REALLY played.

There's a wonderful basketball tradition in the tightly knit Inter-Ac League. No coach wants his team to be labeled the favorite, and all coaches playfully bust each others' chops in an attempt to increase/decrease the pressure, depending upon where they sit.

On paper (and computer screens), the clubhouse leader would appear to be Germantown Academy.

After all, the Patriots do return a pair of first-team all-league honorees in senior frontcourter Jeff Holton (American U. commit) and junior wing man Cameron Ayers, son of the former Sixers coach (Randy) and brother of the current Notre Dame star (Ryan).

Plus, if you're the coach, as is Jim Fenerty, it has to feel good to entrust the squad's success, in part, to a kid who lives under your very same roof (son Jimmy, bound for Dickinson.)

OK, get ready. Here it comes . . .

"In all honesty, I think that Chestnut Hill Academy and Malvern are the favorites," Fenerty said. "I know that this may sound like a 'JoePa,' but we simply have not come together as I expected we would by this time."

Today is Dec. 22. League play starts Jan. 3. Remember that. Also take note that important forward Eric Yuschak is easing into action after tearing an ACL last summer.

"He will really help if we get him back [close to full capabilities]," Fenerty said.

CHA, last year's co-champ with GA, returns the league MVP in forward-center Gary Lawrence and productive forward-turned-guard Pat Connaghan. Several true-grit guys are no longer around, however.

Looking for upswingers? Malvern Prep and Episcopal Academy both can answer that call.

Five of Malvern coach Jim Rullo's top seven guys were rotation members in 2007-08 and two, Lamon Church and DeQuann Walker, are now highly regarded sophs.

At Episcopal, now located in Newtown Square, Dan Dougherty returns a pair of score-alike wings in Cory Goodman and Omari Grier and 6-7 soph Isaiah Baker, son of former ABA player Jimmie Baker (Olney '71), makes daily improvement . . . if not hourly.

Dougherty, by the way, claimed his 600th win as a city leagues coach (74 at Malvern, 526 at EA) in the Churchmen's 43-41 win over Abington Friends on Dec. 2.

The annual opening tripleheader will be played Jan. 3 at Arcadia University, in Glenside. It'll be GA vs. Malvern at 1, followed by CHA-EA at 2:30 and Haverford School-Penn Charter at 4.

There's one "new" coach. Quote marks are used because Bill Michuda, filling in at PC for Jim "Flipper" Phillips (sabbatical), steered PC for three seasons in the mid-1980s and even led La Salle to the 1981 Catholic League title.

INTER-AC TEAM BY TEAM THUMBNAILS

CHESTNUT HILL ACADEMY

Coach: Bill Dooley, 2nd year (also Germantown Friends, 2006-07); Education: Rumson-Fair Haven (N.J.), Richmond. Career: 44-29.

Last year: 8-2, 22-6.

Savvy seven: Gary Lawrence, 6-6, F; Todd Cramer, 6-4, F; Pat Connaghan, 6-4, G; Andrew Kraft, 6-1, F; Kevin Maguire, 5-9, G; Ryan Duffy, 5-9, G; George Smith, 5-10, G.

Dooley's comment: "December has shown that the Inter-Ac is going to be extremely competitive. Our thought is that we could win or lose any of the 10 league games, so we absolutely have to be ready to go each and every time we play."

EPISCOPAL ACADEMY

Coach: Dan Dougherty, 9th year (also St. Pius X, 1959-61; Malvern, 1962-66; Penncrest, 1976; Episcopal, 1977-97). Education: St. Joseph's Prep, Saint Joseph's. Career: 657-294; 525-226 at Episcopal.

Last year: 4-6, 14-13.

Savvy seven: Cory Goodman, 6-foot, G; Omari Grier, 6-3, G; Sean Toner, 6-foot, G; Isaiah Baker, 6-7, C; Allen Heggs, 6-5, F; Rich Rosati, 5-11, G; Paul Ramagano, 6-2, F.

Dougherty's comment: "The rest of us will do our best to be competitive with GA and CHA, the preseason favorites."

GERMANTOWN ACADEMY

Coach: Jim Fenerty, 20th year (also Egan, 1982-89). Education: Dougherty, La Salle. Career: 426-288; 365-150 at GA.

Last year: 8-2, 18-11.

Savvy seven: Jeff Holton, 6-6, F; Cameron Ayers, 6-4, G; Dean Melchionni, 6-5, F; Jimmy Fenerty, 6-foot, G; Austin Curry, 6-1, G; Jack McDonnell, 6-4, G; Pete Haines, 6-3, F.

Fenerty's comment: "We could be good. We should be good. But we're not there yet."

HAVERFORD SCHOOL

Coach: Steve Cloran, 6th year (also Marple-Newtown, 2001-03). Education: O'Hara, St. Francis (Pa.). Career: 70-132; 53-76 at Haverford School.

Last year: 0-10, 7-18.

Savvy seven: AJ Jones, 6-3, G-F; Sam Kurtzman, 6-1, G; Zach Lazar, 5-10, G; Christian Purcell, 6-1, G-F; Joe O'Rourke, 6-2, F; Andrew Acker, 6-5, F; Brendan Purcell, 5-9, G.

Cloran's comment: "My staff and I look forward to being in the gym with this team every single day!"

MALVERN PREP

Coach: Jim Rullo, 3nd year. Education: Malvern, Drexel. Career: 17-9.

Last year: 6-4, 34-21.

Savvy seven: Brendan McNulty, 6-foot, G; Ryan Creighton, 5-10, G; Billy Conners, 5-11, G; Lamon Church, 6-4, G-F; DeQuann Walker, 6-4, F; Tracy Peal, 6-5, C; Brendan Kilpatrick, 6-3, F.

Rullo's comment: "A great bunch of kids that work hard every day. Our challenge is to be play consistent basketball while making good decisions."

PENN CHARTER

Coach: Bill Michuda, 1st year, Jim "Flipper" Phillips on sabbatical (also La Salle, 1980-81; Penn Charter, 1985-87; Souderton, 1988-93). Education: Marquette (Milwaukee), La Salle. Career: unavailable.

Last year: 4-6, 7-19.

Savvy seven: Mark Rhine, 6-1, G; Dylan Moody, 5-6, G; Michael X. Brown, 5-9, G; Tom Noonan, 6-4, F; Greg Laudadio, 6-2, F; Don Rauchut, 6-4, C; John Ryan, 6-2, F.

Michuda's comment: "We're young, inexperienced and eager. Time will tell."