Are the Bobcats ready to contend?

slynch@mercedsun-star.comNovember 1, 2012 

Something clicked for the UC Merced men's basketball down the stretch last season.

The Golden Bobcats picked up half their season total of victories in the month of February, knocking off two of the top three teams and pushing California Pacific Conference champ Cal Maritime to earn a fourth-place finish.

It might have set up for a fun conference tournament run, but NAIA rules didn't allow UCM to participate in its first year of intercollegiate competition.

It left the Bobcats wanting.

So did the preseason predictions.

Despite its efforts down the stretch, the Cal Pac coaches picked UC Merced to again finish fourth in its second season.

"It serves as some added motivation," head coach John Sykes said. "We've had a great summer. All the guys were here and we've really built on what we did last season.

"We felt like at the end of last year we showed we could play with anyone. Apparently, we still have some things to prove."

Sykes' squad can immediately show the Cal Pac and the rest of the country how far they've come when they open the season today at defending national champion and preseason No. 2 Oregon Institute of Technology.

Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.

"To go into a historic place like that and take on a team of this caliber will be great for us," Sykes said. "They're probably annoyed they came into the season No. 2, so we're expecting their very best.

"They're where we want to be, and if you want to get there, they're the kind of team you need to play."

UC Merced returns 10 players from last year's 6-15 squad, led by Cal Pac scoring champ Aki Chambers.

Javon Barrino and George Idehen also should provide consistent scorers for the Bobcats, while Griffin Alexander and Martin Harris were instant energy off the bench.

"It's nice having 10 guys back," Chambers. "Having that many people who know how to play with each other should be a big advantage.

"Practice is so much smoother because everyone knows what's expected and what we need to get done.

"We've all gotten so much better in the offseason, I'm really looking forward to seeing what we can do."

Sykes rounded out the Bobcat roster with four new faces.

Attempting to fill some of the team's shortcomings with his first recruiting class, Sykes added 6-foot-7 freshman Ryan Edwards, 6-foot-4 guard Devin Fountain and 5-foot-10 guard Michael Pierick. James reed also joins the team after redshirting in 2011-12.

"Hopefully, the new guys have shored some things up," Sykes said. "We're not a big team, but we've got some good, smart shooters and should be quick.

"I want us to continue to fight every game this season, but at a faster pace.

"The guys know what to expect. Now we have to go do it."

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