The North Mecklenburg boys' basketball team sits in last place at the halfway point of the I-Meck conference schedule. In most any other conference in the area, they would probably be in the top two.
The new I-Meck conference is filled with talented basketball teams, with seven quality teams vying for four prized playoff spots. Many would argue it's the best league in the state.
"If you look at our conference from top to bottom, I don't think there's one that can be better," said Hopewell coach Eric Davis.
The numbers back him up. Five of the seven teams in the conference are ranked in the Observer Sweet 16 poll, with Hopewell and Lake Norman sitting at No. 1 and No. 2 respectively.
The conference also has three teams (Hopewell, Lake Norman and North Mecklenburg) ranked in the NCPreps.com/HS media poll. Hopewell tops the rankings and Vance is listed as an honorable mention.
The fact that North Mecklenburg is at the bottom of the conference shows how tough it is. The Vikings are undefeated in nonconference play and won a Christmas tournament in Wilmington. But they lost their first five conference games by an average of 5.8 points.
"Someone very good will not make the playoffs," said North Mecklenburg head coach Duane Lewis before the season started. Three teams are tied in fourth place in the conference. With a talented North Mecklenburg team just one game behind them, the race for the fourth playoff spot will be extremely close.
Hopewell, Lake Norman and Vance have separated themselves after the first round of conference play, but Davis knows that anything can happen the second time around.
"The second time (through) you can lose two or three games very easily," said Davis.
As the second half of conference play gets started, here's a look at what the teams have done so far.
Hopewell (18-0, 7-0) has been dominant the past two years in the Lake Norman area, winning 46 of their last 47 games, with the only loss coming in last year's regional final.
The Titans are poised to make a return trip deep into the playoffs behind the play of senior forwards DeMon Brooks and Jordan Downing, who have stepped up and made up for the loss of two 1,000-point scorers Alex Goddette (Army) and Brandyn Curry (Harvard).
The addition of transfer guard Earl McLaurin solidified the lineup.
Hopewell made it through the first half of conference play unharmed, but four of the games were decided by 10 points or less.
Davis said that the defense has been key in giving the Titans some close wins, but the offense will have to get going again for Hopewell to remain undefeated.
Hopewell will be tested when they face Lake Norman at home and also have two tough road games against West Charlotte and Vance.
The Wildcats (14-1, 6-1) are by far the most experienced team in the conference as all five starters are seniors.
They also have an impressive backcourt. Reggie Price leads the team with 18 points per game, and Kevin Canevari hands out seven assists per game.
The team is anchored by one of the best big men in the area: Paul Larsen, who averages 15 points and nine rebounds per game. The combination of quality guard play and a dominant inside presence makes playing Lake Norman tough for any team.
Lake Norman's only loss on the year comes to top-ranked Hopewell, a four-point decision that came down to the final two minutes.
The Wildcats will try to avenge their loss Friday, but this time the Titans have the home-court advantage.
Another loss to the Titans could solidify a second-place finish in the conference, but this team will be dangerous come playoff time.
The Vance Cougars (12-4, 4-2) started the season with seven straight wins, but lost two games in the Chick-fil-A holiday tournament in South Carolina. The Cougars won their second holiday tournament, the Upward Classic in Spartanburg, S.C.
Vance has a dynamic backcourt in Marquis Rankin and Braxton Ogbueze, who was the MVP of the Upward Classic.
The Cougars have looked strong in the conference, but haven't been able to get by the top teams, losing to Hopewell by 10 and Lake Norman by four.
Vance is still a young team but could make a move to the top of the conference, if they can get past Lake Norman and Hopewell the second time around.
The West Charlotte Lions (12-7, 2-5) have been beat up in conference this year, losing to all three teams above them in the standings. They also suffered a four-point loss against Mooresville, but that was without the help of senior guard J.T. Terrell, who was suspended for four games in December after being ejected from the game against North Mecklenburg.
The Wake Forest recruit is the heart of this Lions team and their leading scorer. West Charlotte will have to become more than just a one-man team to stay in that fourth playoff spot through the second half of the season.
The Mooresville Blue Devils' (7-9, 2-5) season has shown the inconsistency that is typical of a young team with only three seniors on the roster.
In back to back nonconference games, the Blue Devils lost to Northwest Cabarrus by 39 and then beat them just over a week later by 16. After losing two close games in the East Lincoln Holiday Tournament, Mooresville stumbled in the conference losing three straight games.
Despite the losses, the Blue Devils are still in a three-way tie for fourth place and can quickly turn the season around. But games against Hopewell, North Mecklenburg and Lake Norman to close out the season will be tough for Mooresville to get through.
The Mallard Creek Mavericks (7-9, 2-5) are in a three way tie for fourth place in the conference despite having a below .500 record.
The Mavericks went into Christmas break on a three-game losing streak but were able to win two out of three games in the East Lincoln Holiday Tournament.
A win against the Vikings was a good start to the new year, but Mallard Creek lost three straight since that game before beating Mooresville Friday.
The Vikings (12-6, 1-6) have been the biggest surprise this year, struggling to an 0-5 conference start before finally getting their first I-Meck win against Mooresville.
With such close losses to Hopewell (four points) and two to Lake Norman (combined 11 points), North Mecklenburg has shown that they can play with the top teams in the state, but they lack the experience to close out games in the final minutes.
The Vikings will need to learn how to finish in the second half of the conference schedule to have any chance at a playoff spot.
North Mecklenburg is led by two juniors, forward Bernard Sullivan, averaging 19 points per game, and guard Carlin Bremner, who has had two 30-point games this year.