Boys BB: All-Time Preseason No. 1s

The season is quickly approaching for boys basketball, so we decided to take a look at how the preseason No. 1 team in the state has fared over the years. If the season were starting today, it’s not a shocker Mater Dei of Santa Ana would begin as the state’s No. 1 overall team in a Top 20 format for the ninth time. If recent seasons are any indication, that would be a good omen for the Monarchs.

We took a look as the state’s all-time preseason No. 1 teams in football right before the season, so we’re now taking a look at the top-ranked teams in boys basketball since the weekly Top 20 rankings format began for the 1988-89 season.

Big man Bol Bol dunks in one of his first games for Mater Dei’s basketball team last season. Photo:

What triggered this was the recruitment of Marvin Bagley III, who left after his junior season at Sierra Canyon for Duke. It’s not often we get a player of Bagley’s caliber and, in many respects, it looks like, going forward, if one is born and raised in California or moves here, he also won’t likely stay at the same CIF member high school for four years. It’s just the nature of the business of big-time high school and grassroots basketball.

This rhetoric came about because many credible college basketball analysts have now pegged Duke as the preseason No. 1 college basketball team. The counter argument is the reference to how Sierra Canyon was the “team to beat” last season with Bagley and came up short. We all are aware of the term “Fake News” and to be quite frank this Bagley reference and how it pertains to Duke’s aspirations in light of Sierra Canyon’s shortcomings is just that: Fake News.

While almost every credible media outlet did have Sierra Canyon preseason No. 1 in California and at least one had Sierra Canyon preseason No. 1 in the nation this past season and in 2015-16, Cal-Hi Sports did not. We started Sierra Canyon No. 2 the past two seasons. In 2015-16, Sierra Canyon (without Bagley) promptly lost in its opener to Moreau Catholic of Hayward, while Chino Hills (with Lonzo Ball and his two brothers) went wire-to-wire as the top team in the state and eventually rose to No. 1 in the nation. Last season, Bishop Montgomery also lost its opener at the same NorCal Tip-Off Classic, but wasn’t at full strength. The Knights later went on to defeat Sierra Canyon, Mater Dei of Santa Ana and Chino Hills to win coveted CIFSS and CIF state open division crowns.

While no SoCal team since the advent of the weekly Top 20 format has ever gone wire-to-wire or started and finished No. 1 in football, it’s happened in basketball on numerous occasions over the years. In fact, we’re currently on quite a roll. We must say, it is a bit easier in basketball because teams can lose in the section playoffs and bounce back in the regionals or avenge a regular season loss in the post-season. In football, the best teams tend to be bunched in the CIF Southern Section’s top division in a lose-and-you’re-done format. Over the years, many SoCal football teams ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the country have lost in the CIFSS semifinals or championship game. At times last year, we admit it seemed as if our choice of Bishop Montgomery was going to be the wrong one. Sierra Canyon, which already had a good team without Bagley, looked that spectacular, but it faltered down the stretch and our hunch that Bishop Montgomery would emerge turned out to be a good call.

Among preseason No. 1s over the past four seasons, only a less than full strength Bishop Montgomery team has even lost a single game to a California opponent (against Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland). The only program to edge California’s best team in that time frame is national power Montverde Academy of Florida. The Eagles won three straight mythical FAB 50 national crowns from 2013-2015. In 2015, Bishop O’Dowd was handed its only loss by the Eagles and went wire-to-wire as California’s No. 1 team. In 2016, Chino Hills used a victory over the Eagles to springboard its historic 35-0 season. In 2017, Montverde Academy defeated Bishop Montgomery at the Hoophall Classic in Massachusetts. This week, Montverde Academy opened as the preseason No. 1 ranked team in the 2017-18 FAB 50 National Rankings powered by CLICK HERE to view the entire rankings.

Ironically, the last preseason No. 1 to finish ranked lower, 2012-13 Long Beach Poly, also lost to probably the best Montverde Academy team in this current era. “They were like a college team,” remarked members of the Jackrabbits’ coaching staff after falling to the Eagles, 76-51, at the City of Palms Tournament in Florida. Poly didn’t fall from its No. 1 perch until losing, in overtime, to Etiwanda in the CIFSS Division I-AA semifinals. Part of the reason Poly was preseason No. 1 was the thought that junior forward Kameron Chatman would eventually be eligible to join the team, but it never happened. Still Poly had the personnel to finish No. 1 and if it would have we’d be on a string of six consecutive No. 1s.

We actually did put together a string of six “correct” No. 1s between 2000 and 2005. Dominguez of Compton, L.A. Westchester and Mater Dei had dominant runs in that time frame and it wasn’t an overwhelming process to pick out the No. 1 team when you could see the NBA was in the future for talents such as Tyson Chandler or Amir Johnson with depth around them.

Amir Johnson is one of three Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Basketball selections to play for L.A. Westchester coach Ed Azzam. Photo: Tom Hauck

Our selections have improved over the years since we started publishing preseason overall Top 20s for California Basketball Magazine in 1988-89. There was a bit more balance among the top teams then and not as many “super teams” as we later saw with Dominguez and Westchester. This was especially true in the L.A. City Section at a time when its top four or five teams were legitimate contenders to win the D1 state title and hadn’t lost in a state title game until that point.

In retrospect, Westchester was a solid No. 1 pick in 1988-89 with the return of talented forward Zan Mason (state junior player of the year) and point guard Sam Crawford surrounded by talented leapers on the wings. The Comets, however, lost to eventual D1 state champ L.A. Crenshaw in the section quarterfinals. That year, four of the top six and five of the top nine ranked teams in the state were L.A. City programs. In 1990, six programs from the section finished in the top 20, with five earning nods in 1991 and four earning top 20 slots in 1992.

Knowing how balanced those teams were, and how L.A. Crenshaw didn’t always reveal its roster or play in summer leagues but knew the Cougars were major title contenders, it seemed like our only poor choice for preseason No. 1 was St. Monica’s in 1989-90. The Mariners were coming off a season in which it advanced to the semifinals in the CIFSS’s largest division (5AA), had an excellent showing in the summer and returned four starters. Leo Klemm did a fine coaching job at the school, but it was a small school program, hadn’t won in the regionals against bigger L.A. City Section schools and didn’t have that one star player like a Ed O’Bannon or Jason Kidd that could carry it against perhaps a bigger, deeper team.

St. Monica lost in the CIFSS 5-AA semifinals (to Earnest Killum and Lynwood) for the second straight season and is the only preseason No. 1 in nearly 30 years to finish No. 10 or lower. The choice probably should have been one of three L.A. City powers between Fremont (preseason No. 2), Crenshaw (No. 3) or Manual Arts (No. 4). With its recent track record (1988 D1 state title and 1989 regional finalist) and returning players, Manual Arts, in retrospect, was probably the safest pick. The Toilers won the 1990 4A city title and opened up as preseason No. 1 the following season, when 3A city champ L.A. Fremont emerged as the best team in the City and SoCal.

We didn’t nail the No. 1 pick in the Top 20 format until 1991-92, when it was easy to pick Kidd and company at St. Joseph after the Pilots ended SoCal’s D1 dominance by defeating Fremont in the 1990-91 state title game, the first loss ever by a L.A. City program in the state final. St. Joseph and Bishop O’Dowd are the only NorCal programs ever to begin ranked No. 1 in the state. St. Joseph did it twice, when it had Kidd and later Ray Young on its roster, and the Dragons when Ivan Rabb was considered the best player in the state with solid talent surrounding him.

As the evidence shows, a team has to have great depth and a solid track record, or that one great NBA-bound player, to be considered California’s best to begin the season.

All-Time Cal-Hi Sports Preseason No. 1 Ranked Teams

(Teams’ final ranking in parentheses; Overall Top 20 format began for 1988-89 season; Our final state rankings by CIF Division, league strength and/or enrollment go back to the 1975-76 season in the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book)

1979-80: Inglewood 29-0 (No. 1)
1980-81: Poly (Long Beach) 26-2 (No. 1)
1981-82: St. Bernard (Playa del Rey) 28-3 (No. 3)
1982-83: St. Bernard (Playa del Rey) 24-3 (No. 4)
1983-84: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 28-2 (No. 2)
1984-85: Crenshaw (Los Angeles) 24-0 (No. 1)
1985-86: Crenshaw (Los Angeles) 25-2 (No. 1)
1986-87: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 31-1 (No. 1)
1987-88: Crenshaw (Los Angeles) 28-1 (No. 2)
1988-89: Westchester (Los Angeles) 16-6 (No. 6)
1989-90: St. Monica (Santa Monica) 23-6 (No. 10)
1990-91: Manual Arts (Los Angeles) 23-5 (No. 9)
1991-92: St. Joseph (Alameda) 32-2 (No. 1)
1992-93: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 33-2 (No. 3)
1993-94: Crenshaw (Los Angeles) 29-2 (No. 1)
1994-95: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 36-1 (No. 1)
1995-96: Dominguez (Compton) 34-2 (No. 1)
1996-97: Dominguez (Compton) 29-5 (No. 2)
1997-98: St. Joseph (Alameda) 30-4 (No. 2)
1998-99: Artesia (Lakewood) 32-3 (No. 4)
1999-00: Dominguez (Compton) 35-2 (No. 1)
2000-01: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 33-2 (No. 1)
2001-02: Westchester (Los Angeles) 32-2 (No. 1)
2002-03: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 34-2 (No. 1)
2003-04: Westchester (Los Angeles) 23-2* (No. 1)
2004-05: Westchester (Los Angeles) 25-3 (No. 1)
2005-06: Fairfax (Los Angeles) 26-3 (No. 3)
2006-07: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 32-4 (No. 2)
2007-08: Fairfax (Los Angeles) 27-6 (No. 8)
2008-09: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 31-2 (No. 5)
2009-10: Westchester (Los Angeles) 32-3 (No. 1)
2010-11: Poly (Long Beach) 30-2 (No. 2)
2011-12: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 34-2 (No. 1)
2012-13: Poly (Long Beach) 28-4 (No. 3)
2013-14: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 35-0 (No. 1)
2014-15: Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland) 31-1 (No. 1)
2015-16: Chino Hills 35-0 (No. 1)
2016-17: Bishop Montgomery (Torrance) 31-2 (No. 1)
2017-18: Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 23-7 (No. 6)
2018-19: Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) 32-3 (No. 1)
2019-20: Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) 30-4 (No. 1)
2020-21: Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) 16-2 (No. 4)
2021-22: Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) 26-5 (No. 2)
2022-23: Centennial (C0rona) 30-4 (No. 2)

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