Nine purple-and-gold banners hang from the rafters above Martin Luther King's basketball court. They celebrate Public League championships won in sports such as badminton, wrestling, gymnastics, and cheerleading. Just two banners honor titles won in the last decade.

And none for boys' basketball. That will change Friday. Coach Sean Colson and his Cougars - the reigning league champs - will raise their banner before the afternoon's season opener.

"And that's it," Colson said. "This is a new year. We don't get anything for last year. This year, once again, they're going to say Constitution should win it. Or Imhotep's going to come back. We're just going to be the guys that are right here. I love our team."

King finished 7-3 in the Public League last season en route to the school's first title. A non-charter school has not won two straight titles since 1999.

And King's path to a repeat will be a challenge. Constitution returns George Mason-bound senior Ahmad Gilbert and Kimar Williams. Imhotep was young last season and will be led by junior Jaekwon Carlyle. Math, Civics and Sciences is centered around Samir Doughty, a guard signed to play at St. John's.

All of those teams will be gunning for the champs.

"Playing against us is going to be everyone's championship game," senior Sammy Foreman said. "We're going to have to go hard every game. There's no fallback games. Because everyone is going to go hard at us."

Even though King's first game is Friday, its season started three months ago. Each player was a member of the school's cross-country team. Colson, who is a dean at King, helped coach. It allowed the basketball players to be together before state rules say they may begin practice.

It was the second year the Cougars did it. Colson said he got the idea from Bill Ellerbee, who did the same with his Rasheed Wallace-led Simon Gratz squads.

Foreman said the cross-country season strengthened the players' relationship with their coach and each other. Come March, Foreman said, the Cougars will be a family. He admitted he did not like running, but he said he knew it helped long-term. Foreman's backcourt mate Jabri McCall was the fastest. The junior navigated the 3.1-mile course at the league championship in 23 minutes, 45 seconds.

"You're running through the woods, and you just want to give up," McCall said. "But when you have someone telling you to keep going and pushing you, it really motivates you to work harder."

Along with making King a stronger team, cross-country also has made the Cougars fitter. Tyere Marshall, a transfer from Roxborough, is 20 pounds lighter than last season. McCall said he noticed last season that his team would be fresher than opponents as games progressed.

King will need its stamina this season as it operates Colson's new offense. The third-year head coach implemented a system derived from his college coaches. Colson played at UNC-Charlotte before a decadelong pro career that included stints in the NBA.

Colson said the offense is "free flowing" and benefits from his team's increased ability to shoot. Foreman, McCall, and Tyheem Harmon will share point-guard duties. Whoever grabs a rebound is instructed to push the ball up the court.

"It's going to be hard to defend us and keep up with us," Harmon said. "I don't think anyone is working as hard as us right now."

Midway though King's practice on Monday, Colson told the team's managers to put nine minutes on the scoreboard's clock. A half-hour later, there was still 2 minutes, 9 seconds left on the clock. Colson is a demanding coach who seeks perfection. He said he wants King to be known as a program, not just as a team.

His players were off for five straight days because of Thanksgiving. There was no excuse, he said, for not hustling. And if a guard did not move the ball quickly up the court, Colson blew his whistle. The team would run from basket to basket for seven straight minutes.

"Don't walk it up. Not here," Colson said. "You can go somewhere else and walk it up."

The Cougars ran and Colson kept time as the scoreboard clock remained at 2:09. The seven minutes elapsed, and the coach told the manager to run the clock. His team had that time to get water and recharge. Practice was not finished yet. King has a banner to defend.