Even with a considerably different roster than the one that won a Division I state championship last March, the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team doesn't consider talk of the program's first title taboo.
"We see it every day in the gym," junior shooting guard Connor Kern said of the banner commemorating last season, when the Tigers went 26-2 overall and defeated Toledo Whitmer 45-40 in the state final at Ohio State. "We look up and it gives us a reason to strive to achieve that again."
Central began its title defense Dec. 1 with a 69-53 win at home over Canton Timken in the Clark Kellogg Tip-Off Classic.
"There's a slew of expectations, but we still have a young team," third-year coach Jerry Francis said.
"I thought there'd be a little more carryover, but there's not and that's fine. We just have to continue to teach."
The Tigers take the court this year without standout point guard Caris LeVert, who averaged a team-high 22 points last season and now is at the University of Michigan. He was Player of the Year in the OCC-Ohio Division, first-team all-district and second-team all-state.
Also gone are guards Zach Beaver and Chad Nelson as well as junior forward Javon Bess. Bess transferred back to Gahanna, where he attended school before going to Central the past two years.
Nelson, an honorable mention all-league selection, averaged eight points a year ago.
Returning starters are the 6-foot-3 Kern, 6-5 junior forward Jae'Sean Tate and 6-6 senior forward/center Taco Charlton. Kern and Tate each averaged 12 points last year and were second-team and honorable mention all-league, respectively.
Charlton, a Michigan recruit in football, was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Tate, the son of former Ohio State and Cincinnati player Jermaine Tate, has verbally committed to play for the Buckeyes. Kern has verbally committed to Wheeling Jesuit.
The other starters are 6-1 senior point guard Theo Williamson and 5-10 junior shooting guard Kyran Boyd.
The rest of the roster consists of senior Vontress Middleton (5-10, guard), juniors Denard Ford (6-3, forward), Kameron Smith (6-3, forward), Corey Taylor (6-2, guard) and Reggie Thomas (6-3, guard), sophomores Rodney Culver Jr. (6-4, forward), Eric Marshall (5-10, guard) and Rael Windley (6-3, guard) and freshmen Jaylin Bannerman (6-4, forward), Jalen Tate (6-3, guard) and D.J. Tyree (5-11, guard).
Central opens OCC-Ohio Division play at home Friday, Dec. 7, against Lancaster.
The Tigers went 13-1 in the OCC-Ohio last year, finishing ahead of Newark (11-3), Gahanna (8-6), Grove City (8-6), Pickerington North (7-7), Reynoldsburg (7-7), Lancaster (2-12) and Groveport (0-14) to win their first league championship since 2004.
Central won its four district tournament games by an average of 25 points and defeated Newark 65-49 in the final, avenging a 51-35 road loss to the Wildcats in the regular season.
The Tigers beat Olentangy Liberty 60-58 and Canton McKinley 60-51 in the regional tournament before defeating Fairfield 60-45 in a state semifinal.
"I hope we can continue Tiger basketball's winning ways," Francis said.
"But it'll be a different journey."