The Hopewell Titans lost two 1,000-point scorers last year to graduation, Brandyn Curry, who now plays for Harvard, and Alex Godette, who plays for Army.
For other teams, this would be a rebuilding year.
But Hopewell just reloaded.
With the addition of senior guard Earl McLaurin, a transfer from Country Day, and stellar play from seniors Jordan Downing and DeMon Brooks, the Hopewell Titans should challenge again for a state title this year.
In a convincing rematch win over Independence Wednesday, just nine days after beating the Patriots by 12, the Titans (4-0 through Dec. 2) showed why many consider them one of the best 4A teams in the state.
"I thought last night was probably the best we've played all year," said Hopewell coach Eric Davis of the game.
Downing scored 13 points in the game while Brooks scored nine. Justin Avery, who is also a quarterback for the Titan football team, scored eight.
"They've been picking up the points by committee," said Davis.
With guards Curry and Godette gone, the scoring is coming mostly from around the basket. That's not surprising for a team that has a post presence like Brooks, who is committed to play basketball at Howard next year.
"Brooks is probably the best post player in the state," said Chris Hemphill, coach of the AAU Carolina Cobras showcase team and former Vance High School coach.
In back-to-back plays on Wednesday, Brooks slammed home a powerful dunk, then was able to put in a circus shot while getting fouled hard under the basket.
Downing, a guard committed to playing at Davidson next year, has also been impressive so far this season, averaging more than 15 points over three games. He sat out the first game with a viral infection and is not up to full speed, according to Davis because he hasn't gotten to practice as much as the rest of the team.
"Jordan is a very, very talented player," said Davis.
The secret to Hopewell's success may be more than just talented players.
"He (Davis) is probably one of the most underrated coaches in the area," said Hemphill.
Since the school opened in 2001, Davis has led the Titans to a 138-79 record and has only had two seasons with losing records. The last three years the Titans have had at least 20 wins.
Last year their only loss was in the regional finals to the eventual state champions, Mount Tabor.
Hopewell went undefeated last year through the MECA 4A conference. This year won't be as easy.
The new I-Meck conference is one of the toughest in the state, boasting four teams in the preseason Observer Sweet 16 Poll - Hopewell, West Charlotte, Vance and Lake Norman.
Lake Norman has five starting seniors that could be the best starting lineup in the area. Their big man, 6-foot-6 senior Paul Larsen, will challenge Brooks on the inside.
West Charlotte has a dangerous guard in senior J.T. Terrell, who plans to play at Wake Forest next year, and Vance has the No. 4 junior point guard in the country (according to Scout.com) in Marquis Rankin.
Davis warns not to forget about North Mecklenburg.
Even though the Vikings are in rebuilding mode this year after losing Kyle Gaillard and Andre Marhold, juniors Bernard Sullivan and Carlin Bremner have the power to make North Mecklenburg contenders in the conference. Mallard Creek and Mooresville could also have the ability to surprise teams this year.
Hopewell will get their first conference test Friday when West Charlotte visits the Titans. Davis knows that every game in this conference will be tough.
"We have to be more worried about ourselves," he said. "When it's time to play those teams we'll prepare for them."
"We're not at the point yet to be able to win the conference," said Davis, adding that this early in the season, he's not sure that any team is.
It should be an exciting season for Hopewell and the rest of the I-Meck conference. The conference is so strong that it reminds Hemphill of a certain Division I college conference.
"The nickname I have for the conference is the little ACC," he said.