The whispers started not long after St. Joseph was finished receiving its CIAC Class LL championship medals last March.
The FCIAC is going to be down next season, came the common refrain.
Whether that proves true remains to be seen. What seems crystal clear in December often turns out to be a mirage come the postseason when it comes to boys basketball.
Case in point: Bassick, which was heralded more on reputation a year ago, won its second straight conference championship.
So what do the tea leaves reveal for the next three months? The very top of the league appears to be down a notch or two from recent seasons, but there seems to be a much wider upper-middle class, which should make for greater parity. The race for top seeds should be a battle.
Ridgefield is the popular favorite, and deservedly so, but that designation often comes with a heavy burden. Just ask St. Joseph last season.
Speaking of the Cadets, change is in the air as the venerable Vito Montelli retired in the offseason, along with Jim Moriarty at Stamford. The secondary story this winter is five schools have new coaches. There has been tremendous turnover on the sidelines the past three years, leaving a number of programs in the hands of bright and promising young coaches who could take their teams in new directions.
5 Teams to Watch
1. Ridgefield: The Tigers got off to a 14-2 start a year ago, but finished 4-5 the rest of the way, losing in the FCIAC semifinals to Trinity Catholic and the Class LL quarterfinals to St. Joseph. Four starters are back, led by a tall frontline headlined by 6-foot-6 Kurt Steidl and 6-4 Jeff Racy. The big question is replacing graduated point guard Seth von Kuhn.
2. St. Joseph: Gone is the inside-outside combination of James Jennings and Timajh Parker, not to mention Montelli. Chris Watts takes over a team in transition, but one with quality, led by junior guard Quincy McKnight, who is ready to step into a leadership role. One name to keep an eye on: promising point guard Raekwon Reid.
3. Bridgeport Central: The Hilltoppers had a difficult time during the regular season against the elite teams but played everyone else tough. They will be the better for some of those lumps, more mature, grizzled and anxious to bring the program back to past glory.
4. Trinity Catholic: The Crusaders are expected to take a big step back with the graduation of Kevin Leumene, and Paschal Chukwu and Jason Boswell transferring out. The loss to Chukwu hurts, but Boswell never seemed comfortable at Trinity. The end result should be a team with better chemistry and capable of being explosive, especially if Tremain Fraiser has a breakout season.
5. Staples: Why the Wreckers over Bassick or Norwalk? A valid and debatable question. We give the nod to the Wreckers because of their experience, athleticism and Peter Rankowitz's ability to carry a team.
5 Players to Watch
1. Kurt Steidl, Ridgefield: The 6-foot-6 forward averaged 18 points and has a silky-smooth game. The Tigers want the ball in Steidl's hands for key possessions because he usually delivers.
2. Schadrac Casimir, Trinity Catholic: For the Crusaders to be successful, they will need their sharp-shooting guard to step up into a leadership role. Casimir should be more than up to the task.
3. Quincy McKnight, St. Joseph: McKnight is in much the same position as Casimir, and the Cadets' need for him to become a go-to player should bring out the best in the talented guard.
4. Peter Rankowitz, Staples: Rankowitz averaged 17 points a game last season and at times he was able to put the Wreckers on his shoulders for stretches. He should be even better this season.
5. DanyJoel Harris, Danbury: An All-FCIAC West pick a year ago, the Hatters are counting on Harris to lead a team that got off to a hot start and then never recovered from a 3-7 stretch.
5 Games to Watch
1. St. Joseph at Ridgefield, tonight: A preview of the FCIAC championship game on opening night? Perhaps. A great measuring stick out of the box for two definite contenders.
2. Bridgeport Central at Trinity Catholic, tonight: Another prime-time matchup on opening night. The Hilltoppers will be reminded of their 33-point home loss a year ago on the penultimate game of the regular season.
3. Staples at Norwalk, Dec. 18: The Wreckers start the season playing the two Norwalk schools. These two teams should be in the hunt for top playoff seeds.
4. Ridgefield at Greenwich, Jan. 4: The Cardinals are a sleeper to keep an eye on. This game begins a tough three-game stretch that is followed by a trip to St. Joseph.
5. Darien at Bassick, Jan. 8: The Lions usually hit their stride at the start of a new calendar year. This game comes before the start of perhaps the most difficult four-game stretch any team faces. Meanwhile, the Blue Wave, with two transfers, are the most intriguing team heading into the season.