John Sykes knew wins weren't going to be easy to come by. He just never imagined they'd be quite so difficult.
The UC Merced men's basketball head coach loaded up the squad's nonconference schedule in the program's second season of varsity play.
After a promising opening campaign, Sykes was hoping the Golden Bobcats could turn some heads. They limped to an 0-16 start instead.
That prompted Sykes to make some dramatic changes to the program's offensive and defensive systems.
The changes paid off with UC Merced's first victory of the season over the weekend. With California Pacific Conference play set to get under way tonight, it was an excellent time for a confidence boost.
"It was great timing for our first win," Bobcats guard Martin Harris said. "It's good to get some confidence going into conference.
"I feel like we're playing much better as a team since coach changed things up. And we know we're battle tested. We've played some of the best teams in NAIA and Division 2, so we're ready to go for conference."
Aki Chambers (20 points per game) leads the team in scoring for the second straight year. The problem has been the next contributer.
Six Bobcats are averaging between five and seven points a game, but players have struggled to contribute night in and night out. Players such as Javon Barrino, Kevin Ellsworth, George Idehen and Harris have scored in spurts, but not with regularity.
Sykes believes he's seen signs of better things the last four games.
"We switched to an offense that really utilizes our speed," Sykes said. "It encourages guys to take the ball to the basket and then kick out for open looks.
"We've struggled with assists all season, but we had 21 in our win over La Sierra, so we're doing a better job of creating for each other.
"The other thing that's much better is our defense. We weren't scoring enough points to be able to compensate for how many we were giving up. We were just too lax.
"We've changed it up to play a little more to our strengths and I think the guys are buying in."
The good news for the Bobcats is most of the Cal Pac has struggled as well.
Defending champion Cal Maritime (13-3) remains the class of the conference and is just outside of the NAIA Top 25 Division 2 poll. The rest of the conference has a combined 11 wins.
With the top four teams qualifying for the Cal Pac Tournament, UC Merced appears to be in the mix.
The Keelhaulers have good size, depth and shoot the 3 well, making them a tough matchup for anyone.
Menlo (4-11) is also considered a contender with a veteran lineup and big man Keith Bowman (12.5 ppg and 6.1 rebounds per game).
Simpson (4-14) isn't very deep, but boasts the biggest front court in the conference.
Pacific Union (1-10) allows the second fewest points per game in the league, but has struggled to shoot the ball.
William Jessup (1-14) has good size as well, and is the league's third-best scoring team.
The Golden Bobcats will open on the road tonight in Rocklin against William Jessup.
UC Merced women
Kevin Pham believed he had a star in freshman shooting guard Shelby Howard.
She hasn't disappointed.
Howard leads the Bobcats with 15.8 points per game and has had single-game totals of 35 and 31.
There aren't many scoring options beyond her right now, however.
Leticia Oceguera is the team's second-leading scorer at 9.4 ppg, but Pham has struggled to get consistent offensive performances from the rest of the supporting cast.
"We just don't have a lot of scoring options right now," Pham said. "Teams are really starting to concentrate defensively on Shelby, and we're waiting for some of the others to step up.
"We're getting looks, but we haven't knocked down open shots all season. It's something we need to address next season."
In the meantime, UC Merced will focus on hunkering down its defense as Cal Pac play opens tonight. The Bobcats played a formidable nonconference schedule, and Pham is hoping the playing field will level out.
Menlo (13-3) is the clear-cut favorite, leading the league in scoring and defense. Jolise Limcaco (17.5 ppg) leads three different Oaks in double-digit scoring.
William Jessup (7-10) has three of the league's top-five scorers and its most prolific 3-point shooter in Ashley Rose (16.5 ppg).
Ariassa Wilson (13.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.7 assists per game) gives Simpson (4-14) one of the league's most complete players.
Cal Maritime (2-16) has one of the deeper benches in the Cal Pac with nine players logging regular minutes.
Pacific Union (1-8) has struggled behind the league's worst offense, averaging just under 39 points per game.