To say that the expectations for the Merced College men's basketball team entering this season were tempered would be a bit of an understatement.
Some on campus were concerned it might be the longest season in head coach Bill Russell's storied tenure with the Blue Devils.
It was difficult to argue with that assessment, at least on paper.
MC doesn't possess great size. The Blue Devil men don't have overwhelming speed or athleticism, nor does Russell have a stable full of pure shooters.
The fact that the Blue Devils had only three returning players and a group of inexperienced freshmen that weren't high school superstars did little to inspire confidence.
Fortunately for Russell, his team has been far more concerned with their on-court opponents than public opinion, and the results are undeniable.
MC's 67-47 victory over Napa Valley over the weekend gave the team third place in the Delta Holiday Tournament.
It was the school's best tournament finish of the season and the win improved the Blue Devils to 6-8 on the season. That's three more wins than a deeper, more experienced MC squad had at this point a year ago.
And that group rallied to finish third in the Central Valley Conference.
"I thought it was a good tournament for us," Russell said. "These young men responded to the challenge before them.
"We were very consistent in both halves in our win over Butte, and we defended the perimeter much better than we'd been doing.
"We just had one little lull against a fired up Delta team and, unfortunately, they went on a big run during it.
"We bounced back against a Napa team that we'd also already beaten. And even though they were pretty motivated too, we played much better.
"I thought Tamar Moultrie played extremely well, being a rebounding anchor and also scoring points. I also thought that helped our other guys really get comfortable with their roles."
It's not that the Blue Devils lack talent.
Freshman forward Josh Tatum (10 point per game and 8.5 rebounds) is a bona-fide star in the making.
Moultrie (team-high 15.4 ppg and 7.1 rebounds) has blossomed into a rock-solid college player.
Sophomore guards Alonzo Sharpe and CJ Coleman know how to run a show and freshman guard Andre Moore (10 ppg) has become a regular contributor.
MC is also getting quality minutes off of the bench from Hodari Peterson and Frank Burns.
The Blue Devils just don't have the abundance of talent that Northern California's powers possess.
It's shown too with MC going 0-3 against NorCal-ranked opponents of the year.
Still, most of those games have been competitive.
What the Blue Devils may lack in talent they make up for with hustle, grit and teamwork.
"We don't have any stars or high school All-Americans, so I tell the players we have to have that workman-like attitude," Russell said. "We have to play hard and give ourselves the best opportunity to be competitive.
"I do kind of feel like some things have worked out in our favor, but it's like we tell the players: you have to make the chances happen, and they've done a good job of that."
That alone makes you want to watch and pull for them. What more can you want from a team?
Maybe I have a soft spot in my heart for the underdogs. While growing up, the bulk of my teams fell into this same category. But there's a reason Cinderella teams become so popular during the NCAA Tournament.
It's easy to get behind a group of athletes that knows it has to play together as a team in order to be successful, and is going to give maximum effort night in and night out because of that fact.
Russell seems to have achieved this with this year's squad in the early portion of the season.
Let's hope they can keep it up.
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at email@example.com.