Heading into the season, Mark Klingsporn thought the Classic Suburban Conference would be a complete tossup. That belief still rings true to Tartan's longtime head coach.
"It's very likely that the seventh-place team could have beaten the first-place team on their home court," said Klingsporn, now in his 20th season. "There's not a lot separating us."
But surprise, surprise: Tartan sits at No. 1 with a 12-1 conference record and 18-5 mark overall through Tuesday's 71-67 victory over Richfield.
This year's team is young. After losing six to graduation last year, the Titans have a much different look. Only two seniors make up Klingsporn's roster and just one of them, Kyle von Schmidt-Pauli, is a starter.
"It's a big leadership role to take," said the 6-4 forward, who is averaging eight points per game. "It's fun and challenging with a young team. But we're coming together great, so that makes it easier on me."
While the team dynamics are a bit different from previous years, results reflect Tartan's storied success. Tartan has beaten senior-dominated teams such as St. Thomas Academy and Richfield.
The success is in large part due to the blossoming talent surrounding the senior.
Junior Darrion Strong is a returning starter who averages nearly 16 points per game. Strong, who started some as a freshman, has received multiple Division-I offers to play college basketball. The quick, crafty point guard is strong for his position. He likes to attack the basket and knows how to finish around the rim.
Fellow junior guard Xavier Hall saw plenty of playing time last year. He often takes on opposing teams' top threats, and usually wins.
"I think he's the best defensive player in the metro area," Klingsporn said.
And Tartan, as always, is a solid defensive team. The Titans rank fifth in Class 4A in fewest points allowed per game. That's actually the lowest Tartan has been in quite some time. They are usually first, second or third in team defense.
"We're pleased with that but we still make young-guy mistakes," Klingsporn added.
Among the young players is Marshawn Wilson, just a freshman and what his coach calls "the real deal." The 6-2 guard is the team's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder.
"He jumps out of the gym," Klingsporn said. "He's a special player, one of the best freshmen in the state."
Tartan starts a 6-8 sophomore, Brody Jackson, at the post. Jackson was a hockey goalie just two years ago before making the winter sport switch. He is in only his second year of organized basketball.
Junior Mike Hudspeth, who comes off the bench, is the team's second-leading scorer. A handful of Titans score between five and nine points per game, so Klingsporn isn't afraid to mix and match his lineup. Junior Kharie Kirkland, at 6-2, is a playmaker and solid rebounder who also starts.
These Titans might sport a more youthful look than in seasons past, but a closer look shows Tartan's overall state of the program is just as promising. The JV and B-squad teams are both 22-0, and the freshman team is at 23-4.
Those numbers are promising, but this current team -- and coach -- is not waiting for the future. That's not the Tartan way.
"Coach always tells us that he coaches to win a state championship every single season," von Schmidt-Pauli said. "That expectation is not any different this season."