You'd have to be looking with an especially critical eye, but if you were inclined to search for clues that the Neumann-Goretti boys' basketball dynasty was mortal, last season yielded a couple.
The Saints' 73-game winning streak in the Catholic League was snapped. The state championship eluded them for the first time in three seasons.
And yet, the Saints won their fifth straight Catholic League title and seventh in the last nine years.
They bring back the consensus best player in the city in Miami recruit Ja'Quan Newton, and most of a rotation that includes three players with Division I commitments, and another, senior forward Jamal Custis, who is headed for Division I football.
As it has for most of the last decade, the path to a title runs through 11th and Moore.
"We've been able to answer this bell year in and year out," Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale said. "I know a lot of people sit there, and their goals are 'Let's try to make the playoffs. Let's come in fourth.' That's never been our mantra. It's all or nothing."
Everything begins with the 6-foot-3 Newton, a dominant scorer whom Arrigale has asked to step up defensively and as a rebounder.
The Saints often will go with a fast four-guard offense, spearheaded by Newton; Lamarr Kimble, a junior attracting Division I interest; and Troy Harper (Campbell).
That will take some of the stress off the 6-6 frontcourt pair of Custis and Tony Toplyn (Campbell), who are rugged but not prototypical big men.
Archbishop Carroll, a strong contender for its first league title since 1995 after reaching the state final last season, will present the reverse image.
The Patriots are led by their frontcourt: 6-6 junior Derrick Jones, who has offers from Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse, among others; and 6-10 junior center Ernest Aflakpui. They added a stellar transfer in senior guard Austin Tilghman from St. Andrew's in Delaware.
"We've got four guys back that played in that state championship, which is a great start," coach Paul Romanczuk said. "This is a hungry bunch."
Roman Catholic, which has fallen in the semifinals the last three seasons, might have the senior backcourt to match Neumann-Goretti. Both Shep Garner (Penn State) and Rashann London (Drexel) have made college commitments.
St. Joseph's Prep lost two Division I players to graduation from last season's state semifinalists, and will rely heavily on 6-4 junior guard Chris Clover.
John Mosco takes over as coach at Archbishop Wood after nearly 20 years as a Neumann-Goretti assistant, and he will have the services of Cornell-bound senior forward Pat Smith.
La Salle will open a remodeled gym with a roster also under renovation. The Explorers graduated two Division I players and four starters.
At Cardinal O'Hara, Steve Cloran returns to his alma mater as head coach. He spent eight years as coach of the Haverford School.
- Tim McManus
and Matt Breen