Never mind that the last boys’ basketball state championship for Camden came in 2000 — the fans in the hoops-crazy city never lower their expectations.

When the NJSIAA state tournament begins on Feb. 25, the Panthers will be one of the intriguing stories. They will be in the rare role of underdog. Not a heavy underdog, but an underdog nevertheless.

Of course, the Panthers could be playing in the NBA Eastern Conference and their fans wouldn’t consider them underdogs. “The High” is expected to win, and the fans want no excuses.

“I am from Camden and I understand the passion for the team,” said first-year coach VIc Carstarphen, a former star who won two state titles as a Camden player in the 1980s and then lost in the state final his senior year. “People say you have got to win it, and when you don’t, they are like Sixers fans: They get on you.”

Even though the last state title was 19 years ago, when Dajuan Wagner led the way, Camden has come awfully close since. Before last year, the Panthers had lost in five straight state finals, one in Group 3 and the other four in Group 2.

“In those last four [Group 2 state finals], we missed 89 free throws,” Carstarphen said Thursday after a 66-57 win over Timber Creek. “If we don’t miss as many, we would have won at least two state titles.”

The coach, a former star at Temple, understands the fans’ passion. Before he became an assistant coach, he was one of them.

“I was a fan before a coach and I would sit in the stands and say, ‘They should have been doing this, or that,’ ” he said, laughing.

Now he is guiding a young but talented group.

Jerome Brewer, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, averages 14.4 points and has outstanding athletic ability.

Lance Ware, a 6-9 junior, averages 11.4 points, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. Ware is skilled enough to handle the ball and can hurt teams inside or out. He also can jump out of the building.

“He has a guard’s mentality, and sometimes we have to reel him in and tell him we need him around the basket,” Carstarphen said. “He has incredible athletic ability.”

Camden's Ethan Tarte leaping between Paul VI defenders during a Feb. 7 game.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Camden's Ethan Tarte leaping between Paul VI defenders during a Feb. 7 game.

On a young team, 6-1 senior Ethan Tarte brings toughness, scoring (14.5 ppg.), and, more important, leadership.

“I really want to get a state championship,” Tarte said. “Everybody does.”

Another player providing senior leadership is guard El Khana Hidalgo.

Like Brewer, 6-7 TaQuan Woodley is among the top sophomores in South Jersey.

The win over Timber Creek improved the record to an un-Camden-like 14-7, but the Panthers, who are ranked No. 5 in South Jersey by the Inquirer, have played a brutal schedule that should prepare them for the rigors of the postseason.

Anybody writing Camden off would be foolish, but calling the Panthers the favorite would also be inaccurate.

Camden forward Lance Ware, shooting against Haverford School guard Christian Ray, has a guard's mentality.
Camden forward Lance Ware, shooting against Haverford School guard Christian Ray, has a guard's mentality.

The Panthers are seeded second in South Jersey Group 2, and the favorite is top-seeded Haddonfield, the defending state champion. Last year Haddonfield beat Camden, 54-53, in overtime during a classic South Jersey Group 2 semifinal that had the feel of a state final.

As it turned out, nobody gave Haddonfield as hard a time as the Panthers in the state tournament.

Still, don’t don’t mention the Bulldawgs to Carstarphen, a true one-game-at-a-time disciple.

Carstarphen played at Temple under John Chaney, who left him with many sayings, including one that is applicable for the state tournament.

“Coach Chaney used to say, ‘Win one, buy another,’ ” Carstarphen said.

Camden would need to win three to buy a potential rematch with Haddonfield, which is ranked No. 2 by the Inquirer.

Carstarphen and the players don’t want to mention Haddonfield at this point.

When asked if his team has scouted the Bulldawgs, he said, “We have seen them, and they have seen us.”

Whether anybody wants to say it or not, the two are likely to see each other March 4, the day of the South Jersey final.