If you watch Merced practice, it doesn't take long to see what coach Marcus Knott was missing last season.
It's the big guy in the middle, grabbing all the rebounds.
The guy scoring easy baskets inside.
It's Kenny Cooper -- a big guy who can make a difference in the paint.
Cooper represents the piece Knott never found to complete his puzzle last year.
That was never more evident than in the playoffs, when Sacramento McClatchy big man Jamal Thomas dominated inside -- 34 points and 15 rebounds -- to end Merced's season with a 76-71 loss.
Cooper can help keep players like Thomas from tormenting Merced.
"I think so," Knott said. "He's worked pretty hard. He can make a big difference.
"We saw in our last game in the playoffs how a very large young man hurt us.
"Kenny can help take some pressure off some of our other guys."
Cooper isn't exactly going to be ducking under doorways at 6-foot-4.
However, the junior is an extremely strong, athletic center who will be the perfect compliment to Merced's dynamic guard tandem of Jarrett Sparks and Allen Huddleston.
"I need to come in and be a presence," Cooper said. "I need to guard people on the low post and rebound."
Cooper struggled to stay on the court last year. As a sophomore, he often found himself in foul trouble.
Then midway through the season, Cooper's mother wanted her son to focus on more important things than basketball.
He left the team to get things together at school and off the court.
"He's going to help a lot," Sparks said. "He could be our third scorer, he can rebound and play inside.
"We needed one more guy last year and that can be him."
It's no secret Merced is going to be a guard-oriented team.
After he's done making his tour of Pac 10 schools while he sifts through his football scholarship offers, Sparks once again will be reason enough for fans to come out and watch Merced play.
Sparks was an easy choice for MVP last year after leading Merced in scoring and rebounding.
Opposing point guards are too small to guard the 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior.
Big men don't have a chance against Sparks' quickness.
Huddleston just might be the second-best player in the league.
As a sophomore, he showed he could explode for 20 or 30 points on any night.
Huddleston spent his summer traveling around the country, playing against some of the top players in the nation.
"Most coaches in the area would love to have those two guys coming back," Knott said.
"But except for those two guys, we don't have a lot of experience. That's a little scary.
"A lot of our success will depend on how well we fit together. It's a nice luxury to have those two guys, but a lot is going to fall on those two guys in making sure we gel together.
"They'll be my captains. They're going to have a lot of responsibility besides just scoring."
When it comes time for conference play, Merced will once again be favored along with Pitman.
"I think our league is going to be really competitive," Knott said.
"Having those two guys back is a big reason we're probably the favorite.
"Pitman has a lot of guys back. I think Turlock and Golden Valley will be right there too."
After winning the league last year and getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs, the players have lofty goals this season.
"We want to go to Arco (Arena) and win a section title," Cooper said. "We didn't do it in football. Basketball is the next sport."
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COACH: Marcus Knott
LAST YEAR: 14-14, 10-2 CCC; lost to Sacramento McClatchy in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Playoffs.
RETURNING STARTERS: Jarrett Sparks, 6-3 G; Allen Huddleston, 6-2 G
Patrick Franey, 6-2, JR;
Bobby Salinas, 5-10, G
OUTLOOK: Merced returns the top backcourt in the CCC with Sparks and Huddleston. The duo carried Merced to a conference title last year. Kenny Cooper (6-3) gives Merced much needed help inside. Merced will be the favorites along with Pitman to again win the CCC.