Contenders, pretenders and storylines to watch

The early games are filed in the scrapbook, the holiday tournaments are in the rear-view mirror.

The heart of the FCIAC boys basketball season kicks off Friday night with a number of compelling games. Thus far, the preseason notion that the very top of the league is down a few notches and there is a wider middle class seems accurate.

Three teams currently are unbeaten and four others have one loss. Only one school is winless.

We will start learning a lot about some teams soon. Is Staples a contender or pretender? It hosts Trinity Catholic Friday night and Ridgefield on Tuesday. Are the Tigers still the team to beat? They have an interesting three-game stretch with Greenwich, Staples and Norwalk, schools that may or may not be in the hunt.

As we get ready for the core of the season, here are some thoughts on what has happened thus far, and some storylines to keep an eye on for the next two months.

— Is St. Joseph better than we thought? With the loss of James Jennings and Timajh Parker, not to mention legendary coach Vito Montelli, the Cadets were expected to take a sizable step back this year. They are not as dominant as last season’s state championship team, but the rest of the league is not as strong either. An opening win at Ridgefield was impressive. So is the team’s chemistry.

St. Joseph's Quincy McKnight

Junior Quincy McKnight has become the leader everyone predicted, but thus far he has been part of a nice ensemble. Jake Pelletier, coming off a great football season, has been extremely impressive, as have Erick Langston and Jonathan Dzurenda.

For all of their success, the Cadets have won just one FCIAC title, in 2000. Right now there is no reason to believe they can’t end the drought.

— Is this finally Ridgefield’s year? After the Tigers lost to St. Joseph, there were whispers that this was further proof they cannot win a big game. That was an absurd notion: it was just one game, and as we have seen, St. Joseph is still a power.

Since that time, the Tigers have blitzed through average to weak competition by an average of 32 points, as if they are on a mission.

They are. Those opening-game critics made way too much of one loss. If Ridgefield can get consistent play at point guard, it has all the pieces for a championship run.

— Is Trinity Catholic for real? In some respects, the Crusaders have been the surprise team in the FCIAC so far. By past performance, maybe the Crusaders’ 6-0 mark was expected.

But with Kevin Leumene graduated and Paschal Chukwu and Jason Boswell having transferred, Trinity came into the season with a number of question marks. No one expected Schadrac Casimir to average 29.3 points; he may be Division I good. Brandon Wheeler has emerged as a strong No. 2 and is among the league’s most improved players. Tremaine Fraiser still has some wild pony in him, but his consistent moments have far outweighed his occasional penchant for getting out of control.

Rebounding and depth are still concerns, and their four league wins have been close. But the Crusaders may remain surprise players in the title hunt.

— Anyone else to keep an eye on? Bassick is the other unbeaten team and has the pieces in place for a three-peat, especially with interior size. Norwalk, Westhill and Bridgeport Central all have one loss. The Bears have a solid team but thus far seem to be missing something — perhaps a take-charge player? — that is keeping them from making that final step to the elite level. The Hilltoppers are much improved since opening the season with a loss to Trinity and are a definite sleeper. The Vikings still need that quality win, though they have played well against the teams they should beat.

— Which teams are ready to make the leap from bottom of the pile to middle of the pack? Wilton was considered a possibility for one of the last league playoff spots, and may still be. It has rebounded from an 0-3 start with two straight wins, but next up are St. Joseph and Bridgeport Central.

Darien, which has had one of the weakest programs over the past decade, opened 0-3 — two of the losses were to Ridgefield and St. Joseph — but has bounced back with good wins over Greenwich and Staples. Former Blue Wave player Kyle Marian has been working hard to rebuild the team, and touted transfer point guard Matt Staubi has started to live up to the billing.

The Starting 5

1. ST. JOSEPH (6-0): I saw the Cadets twice in their Northeast Holiday Classic. The quality of competition was weak, but their play together was very impressive.

2. RIDGEFIELD (4-1): For the time being, still have to give the Tigers the nod over the other unbeaten teams.

3. TRINITY CATHOLIC (6-0): When was the last time a player in the conference got off to as explosive a start as Casimir has?

4. BASSICK (6-0): The Lions have made a recent habit of starting the season as a bit of an unknown before emerging as a dangerous challenger once the calendar year changes. Ditto so far this year.

5. NORWALK (5-1): We will give the Bears a slight edge right now over Central.

(Special thanks to Steph Hausman, a graphic designer for Westhill High School’s student newspaper, The Westword, for designing the new Second-Chance Points logo.)