Coach Lou Cicciari was serious when he told his Granada Hills High boys' basketball team during practice this week that the Highlanders are just as likely as any team to win the Northwest Valley Conference.
He made the statement even though Granada Hills started the season with six consecutive losses and sports a 4-8 record heading into conference play, which begins today.
But Cicciari believed the message he sent.
"There were teams that looked strong going in but almost everybody has had problems," Cicciari said. "I truly think we have a good chance."
It didn't appear so when the school year began.
Two of the top players in the City Section returned for defending West Valley League champion Chatsworth, and the Chancellors had enough depth at least to match last season's quarterfinal appearance in the City Section 4-A Division playoffs.
Cleveland, bolstered by a talented group of transfers, was poised to return to contender status after an off-season in 1995.
North Valley League champion Birmingham was the surprise of the postseason, advancing to the 3-A title game behind 6-6 sophomore center David Redmond.
The rest of the conference coaches figured to fight it out for respectability.
Instead, they might be fighting for first place.
Thanks to academic problems, medical fraud, expired eligibility and player defections, the conference season begins with a wide-open race.
At Chatsworth, senior standouts Jerome Joseph and Eddie Miller saw their team disappear before the season began.
Point guard Isiah Thomas and forward Exavian Browdek were declared academically ineligible, and forward T.J. McCoy, the Chancellors' only other returning starter, was suspended for the season because he was charged with falsifying a physical.
Faced with a difficult preseason schedule, Chatsworth went 3-6.
Cleveland forward Marcus Baldwin, a starter last season, lost his eligibility because he is too old. Two transfers, forward Akua Floyd and guard Tony Hoggatts, have used their eight semesters of eligibility and were declared ineligible.
Baldwin and Hoggatts are appealing their cases but the damage has been done for the Cavaliers (6-7).
"Even if we do get them back, they will have lost too much," Coach Kevin Crider said. "They've missed too many games and practices."
At Birmingham (6-6), Redmond quit the team midway through the Beverly Hills tournament then changed his mind a few days later. Brave Coach Al Bennett gave Redmond a second chance but held him out of two holiday tournaments.
Bennett said Redmond will play against Cleveland today, his first game in nearly a month.
All the instability has opened opportunities for the other conference teams.
El Camino Real (10-5) and Kennedy (8-4) have been impressive in tournament play. The Golden Cougars have a balanced attack and the Conquistadores are led by forward Cameron Henderson.
After slow starts, Granada Hills and Taft (4-6) showed improvement in holiday tournaments. Even San Fernando (5-8), one of the conference's youngest teams, has shown flashes.