Bobcats hope tough schedule pays off

slynch@mercedsunstar.comDecember 14, 2012 

— John Sykes has taken on all comers in his second season as UC Merced men’s basketball coach.

He scheduled Division I opponents, defending NAIA national champs and some of the top NAIA teams from around the state and country.

The Golden Bobcats’ opponents to date are a combined 53-19 and 10-1 Hope International will make a trip to Hostetler Court on Saturday.

As expected, UCM has taken its share of lumps. What Sykes didn’t anticipate was that the team wouldn’t be dishing out a few in return. The Bobcats have competed at times, but with the expectations raised in Year 2, no one saw an 0-10 start coming.

Still, Sykes remains upbeat.

With the ultimate goal a run at the California Pacific Conference crown and an automatic berth into the postseason, Sykes believes a few thumpings now will pay big dividends come the new year.

“We knew there might be some struggles because of the way we loaded up the schedule, but I never thought we’d have no wins by now,” Sykes said. “People forget we didn’t have a win before Christmas last year, so we could still have a better pace.

“But I really believe these losses are worthwhile. It helps with recruiting. It helps build confidence in these young men.

“It’s really convincing a lot of them what college basketball is all about. Once conference starts, I think we’re really going to see it pay off.”

The players are having a little more difficulty taking the long view.

Part of the problem is a season-long shooting slump. Despite returning nine players, the Bobcats’ shooting percentage and 3-point shooting percentage are both down from a year ago.

UC Merced is shooting 35 percent from the field and just 23 percent beyond the arc. The upped nonconference schedule may be contributing to those numbers, but the longer the goose egg remains in the win column, the more the players heap pressure on themselves.

“It doesn’t matter to us that we’re playing some really good teams,” forward Javon Barrino said. “We expect to go out and win every time we take the court.

“We’re competitors, so it’s tough to feel like it’s going to pay off later. All you want is that first win, and it kind of knocks the wind out of you when you don’t get it.”

While the shooting woes are a concern, those things tend to work themselves out. UC Merced’s defensive effort has been the biggest disappointment so far this season.

The Bobcats’ lowest point total surrendered this year is 72 and opponents are averaging a whopping 86 points per game.

“There’s no doubt in our minds we could have played some games better,” sophomore guard Mitch Flores said. “We’ve played some good teams really tough, but there always seems to be a stretch where we have two or three bad possessions in a row and the other team breaks it open.

“We’ve had some really good halves, but we haven’t turned in a 40-minute game. That’s probably the biggest reason we don’t have a win yet.” Sykes hopes a two-week break for finals has allowed his squad to heal up and recharge its batteries.

The Golden Bobcats will host Hope International Saturday, with the tip-off set for 7 p.m.

“I think the guys are definitely ready to get back after it,” Sykes said. “They’ll be happy to be done with finals and want to get after someone.

“I know once we get the first win the pressure is going to ease off of them, and you’ll probably see us start to get on a roll.

“There’s a whole lot of season left.”

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