ROCKFORD — Sha’Den Clanton is a 6-foot-6 senior guard with a 7-foot wingspan who can defend anyone on the court.

“When Sha’Den brings it and wants to be dominant on both ends of the floor, that’s when we’re at our best,” East coach Roy Sackmaster said. “If he has a big year, then we could have a big year as well. He can guard the point in our press or guard all five positions with his length. He gives you something that other teams don’t have.”

Clanton isn't the only thing East has that other teams don't. Junior guard Sincere Parker scored 31 points in his varsity debut Monday, Andres Thompson is a quality point guard and four-year starting guard Chris Burnell (1,133 points) should break Skip Thoren’s 1962 school record of 1,302 career points. All four can be spectacular at times. In Monday’s opener, Burnell tried to block an Indianapolis Pike layup from behind. When the Pike player ducked, Burnell jumped completely over the top of him.

The question is, can the E-Rabs leap over three-time defending champion Boylan and win their first NIC-10 boys basketball title in 38 years?

It helps that the E-Rabs have made runs the last two years, finishing 10-6 and then 11-5, two games behind Boylan and Jefferson last year.

“To be in the thick of that could help us in the long run,” Sackmaster said. “These guys have been through the idea of we have to play every night.”

“It’s cool to be the favorites,” Clanton said, “but we always have to stay hungry and humble and just grind every day.”

Parker changes the entire team dynamic for East, taking pressure off the others with his ability to score in bunches at any time.

“He takes the weight off of all our shoulders," Burnell said. "We have to pick it up on defense and he’ll keep coming on O.”

“We have a lot of talent,” said Parker, the son of Ray Parker, one of a dozen 1,000-point scorers in East history. “I can just play my role and know they will have my back every time.”

Sackmaster is a little uncomfortable with being tabbed the league favorite, knowing Boylan has the league’s greatest track record, both long term and lately.

“We haven’t done a whole lot yet for anyone to anoint us as anything,” Sackmaster said. “We appreciate the respect around the league, but we’ve got to go out and earn that respect.”

East has some of the most loyal, old-time fans in the NIC-10, but those fans have become starved for a winner. Last year’s baseball team was East’s first conference champion in any sport in 20 years.

“When I go out,” Sackmaster said, “I’ve always got East gear on, and someone will always say, ‘Hey, I went there.’ You have all these people who are eager to show their pride and tell people they went to East. It would be great to give back to East fans, young and old, and be able for them to say they can be champions again.”

Matt Trowbridge: 815-987-1383; mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge

E-Rabs at a glance

Coach: Roy Sackmaster (14th year)

Last season: 20-11 (11-5)

Predicted finish: 1st

Returning starters: Chris Burnell (6-3, Sr. G), Sha'den Clanton (6-6 Sr. G).

Other key players: Sincere Parker (6-3 Jr. G), Andres Thompson (6-4 Sr. C), Damarion Dickens (5-8 Sr. G), Markarious Luster (6-1 Soph. G), Delvonte Leflore (6-5 Jr. C), Chris Hodge (6-9 Sr. G), Josh Crawford (6-2 Jr. G), Evan Bell (6-4 Sr. C), Jaedyn Brannon-Davis (5-9 Jr. G)

Strengths: Athleticism, shooting, depth

Weaknesses: Lack of varsity experience after Burnell and Clanton.

Outlook: Chris Burnell should finish this season as East’s all-time leading scorer, but Sincere Parker is expected to be the leading scorer this year and Sha’den Clanton could lead in any given game. The E-Rabs have more firepower than any team in the league but will also have to do the little things to win their first NIC-10 title in 37 years.