"I think that my players this year are basketball smart," said Larson. "Last year I had kids who hadn't really played at the varsity level and weren't used to the speed of the game. And we have a little more talent at some of the key positions. I think we're going to be better this year."
Although the team is still without a marquee inside presence, this year's incarnation appears to be much better prepared to minimize that deficiency with pressing, trapping defensive schemes and swarming help from the weak side.
"We're going to run. That's why we try to run and press, because we're too small. We try to manage with weak-side help. But when we play Antioch and De La Salle and some of those really, really tough teams, that's where we're going to struggle, because they're really going to beat us up underneath. Other teams, teams that aren't really, really big, I think we'll be competitive against."
Junior point guard Daniel Pereira has emerged as a strong court general, using his quickness to break down opposing defenses off the dribble. And Marc Miranda, a senior guard/forward, has stepped in to provide scoring punch from the perimeter. With Pereira and Miranda leading the way, Freedom should have no problem putting the ball in the bucket.
"They're both my captains," Larson said of the pair. "Daniel was the MVP of the JV last year, so he's already been in that leadership role and he's confident in the way that he plays. And Marc - he put in so much time and worked so hard that he's developed confidence, because he's played and improved so much (in the offseason)."
Pereira and Miranda are joined in the starting lineup by center Roderick Tryce, the team's most effective rebounder and shot blocker from last year, and power forward Deon James, whose basketball savvy, smooth stroke and passing skills have impressed Larson thus far.
"He's the best passer that I've ever seen at the high school level," Larson said of James. "Watch him pass; he's phenomenal. He's just not that quick. He really has a tremendous feel for the game and a great basketball IQ."
The Falcons will also need production from less experienced players if they're to put last year's losing ways behind them. Sophomore guard Trevor Ferguson, a good shooter, will be asked to play significant minutes, as will junior Cameron Gupton, who's lightning quick off the dribble and can get to the paint at will.
One key to the team's improvement, according to Larson, is improved chemistry. The players on this year's squad have all accepted their roles and there is no squabbling over minutes or shots.
"I think the guys who're on the bench realize that the other players are better, whereas last year, everybody thought they were just as good as the other guys," explained coach Larson.
"This year, they realize that we have a seven- or eight-man rotation and that the other kids just aren't quite at that level yet, although they will be - and they're supportive of our other players."
Despite a 1-4 start to the season, there is no doubt that this Freedom team is much improved from a year ago. It looks to improve its record at the Rocklin Tournament, which runs Dec. 13 through 15, before returning home on Tuesday, Dec. 18, when the Falcons host Mt. Diablo at 7 p.m.