It wasn't too long ago that first-round playoff games were gimmies for Merced.
Almost every year, Merced seemed to be playing in the Sac-Joaquin Section semifinals or finals.
However, when Jarrett Sparks, Allen Huddleston and Co. take the floor tonight against Modesto, Merced will be trying to win its first playoff game since capturing the section title in 1997.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Merced High.
"We've talked about it," Merced coach Marcus Knott said. "We've talked about that since the beginning of the season.
"Our coaching staff is all Merced graduates. We have pride from the tradition of our program. Since the three of us have been coaching together, we've talked about getting the program back in that position of respect throughout the section."
Merced (19-8) enters the tournament as the No. 1 seed in Division I.
In other Division I action, No. 13 Los Banos (18-9) opens the playoffs at No. 4 Downey (21-6).
Knott's boys will face No. 16 Modesto (15-10), which features a giant front court of Matt Vermuelen (6-foot-9), Josh Jones (6-7) and Julius Brazzel (6-7).
"Anytime you're playing a team that big, you have to try to be as solid as possible and keep them off the glass," Knott said. "You have to keep a body on them because you're not going to win too many jumping contests with somebody who's 4 or 5 inches taller than you."
Expect Merced to get out and run with their dynamic guard duo of Sparks and Huddleston, who have combined to average close to 46 points per game.
Merced will try to avoid a repeat of last season, when it let a winnable home playoff game against Sacramento McClatchy get away.
"It would be a shame after working this hard to get into the position we are and not take advantage of it," Knott said. "We like our position in the brackets, but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves.
"I expect a physical game with hard-nosed defense. We have a shot to redeem ourselves from last year."
Division I Boys Playoffs
No. 16 Modesto (15-10)
at No. 1 Merced (19-8)
WHEN: Tonight, 7 p.m.
AND THE WINNER GETS ... The winner of tonight's No. 8 Edison-
No. 9 Kennedy game. Tip will be on Tuesday at UOP.
ALSO IN ACTION TONIGHT: No. 13 Los Banos (18-9) travels to No. 4 Downey (21-6). Tip is set for 7 p.m.