Expectations for the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team might be as high as they've been since the school district split into two high schools in 2003.

Expectations for the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team might be as high as they've been since the school district split into two high schools in 2003.

The Tigers went 12-11 overall and 8-6 in the OCC-Ohio Division last year, losing 71-49 to Westerville South in a Division I district semifinal. They've won 12 games three times in the past eight years but haven't finished better than third in their league - the place for which they tied a year ago - since 2003-04, when they were second in the OCC-Cardinal.

But no one in the program could remember another year in which Central returned 13 of 15 players or could boast a Division-I bound player among its two college commitments, as it does now.

"There are people talking like we could win the OCC and district this year," said senior guard Caris LeVert, who signed Nov. 9 to play at Ohio University. "We were young last year and we grew up. We took the pressure on us and handled it well."

Last year was the Tigers' deepest postseason advancement since they lost to Brookhaven 57-42 in a district final in 2003, one year after they won their first district championship since 1991.

Between then and last year, Central was ousted in the first round three times and in the second four times.

"We look at this group and we're pretty excited," second-year coach Jerry Francis said. "We have a realistic goal of being one of the best teams in the OCC. What I really want to see is us winning with intangibles - toughness, diving on the floor for loose balls and guys accelerating and fulfilling their roles. We saw that more as the season went on last year."

With an 8-6 league record last year, Central tied Newark behind co-champions Pickerington North and Gahanna (both 13-1). They were ahead of Reynoldsburg (7-7), Grove City (5-9), Groveport (1-13) and Lancaster (1-13).

Central opens Friday, Dec. 2, at Brookhaven. The Tigers' league opener is Tuesday, Dec. 6, at Lancaster. They play Dec. 9 at North before their home opener Dec. 13 against Dublin Jerome.

The 6-foot-1 LeVert and Ohio Dominican commitment Chad Nelson, a 6-0 guard, will lead a senior class that also includes 6-1 guard Roger Lewis and 5-11 guard Marcus Milton.

Inside presences will be 6-8 junior forward/center Taco Charlton, 6-8 junior forward Brian Marshall, 6-7 junior forward Darryl LeVert and 6-4 sophomore forward Javon Bess.

Charlton and Lewis will not join the basketball team until after football season. The Tigers play Cleveland St. Ignatius in the Division I state final at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at Fawcett Stadium in Canton.

Caris LeVert, an honorable mention all-district selection last year whom ESPN.com recently ranked as the state's No. 8 prospect regardless of position, was the Bobcats' only commitment during the fall signing period. He led the team with 16.2 points per game last year; sophomore forward Jae'Sean Tate (6-4) averaged 10.7 per game.

Sophomore Connor Kern, a 6-0 shooting guard, is expected to be in the starting lineup, which is in flux because of football-related absences.

The team's personality, Nelson said, is not in question.

"A lot of people say we're like a (Columbus) City League team in terms of pushing the ball and playing fast," Nelson said. "We take that as a compliment.

"We're not just going to show up and say we're a new team. We feel like we can make some noise. We made a big turnaround. We're going to play hard, like we did last year."