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Blue Devils show promise early

Bill Russell can't help but light up when talking about his team.

The usually stoic Merced College men's basketball coach is overcome by an infectious energy once he gets going.

Russell is so enthusiastic you'd think his team was 10-4 to start the season -- not 4-10.

But that's how special this squad is. Losses in nine of their last 10 contests hasn't soured Russell one bit.

"I really like this group of young men," Russell said. "We've had a bad run, but we're in the games.

"Even the ones that haven't ended up close, were. Teams just hit their free throws to break them open.

"This team plays hard and that's what makes them enjoyable.

"It gives me strength knowing how much they want to learn."

Part of Russell's optimistic attitude stems from the fact that the Blue Devils' roster is filled with 11 freshman.

Even Russell's sophomores lack experience.

Lavell Shipman, Erin Walker, Stephon Thomas and Adam Grubb are Russel's only returners. Of them, only Shipman was a regular contributor.

"We knew there were going to be some ups and downs with only a few sophomores coming back," Shipman said. "It feels like if we a get a couple wins, though, its going to start steamrolling."

Should that happen, expect Shipman to be leading the charge.

A season ago, the 6-foot-4 swingman served as instant offense coming off of the MC bench.

Now Shipman's the Blue Devils' main scoring option, averaging just under 15 points

per game.

"It was something I was ready to embrace," Shipman said. "I knew we lost a lot of our scorers and that people were going to have to step up."

As much as Shipman's scoring is appreciated, his biggest contribution to Russel is his versatility.

While the MC coach has tinkered with the lineup in search of the right combination, Shipman has seen time at point guard, shooting guard and small forward.

"Lavell gives us a lot of options because he can do whatever I ask," Russell said. "He works hard and sets a great example for the rest of the team."

The same can be said for the rest of Russell's sophomores.

Former Hilmar star Grubb is slowly becoming the team's sharp-shooter.

His 20 3-pointers rank second on the team, as does his .351 3-point shooting percentage.

Walker and Thomas do their damage from the inside.

The two 6-foot-5 forwards are both tremendous athletes, who attack the glass on both sides of the court.

"They didn't all get a lot of playing time last year, but they've come a long way," Russell said of his sophomores. "They all work so hard, it's really a great group."

Russell added a diverse freshman class to help compliment his blue-collared sophomores.

Heading that class is former Merced star Logan Wiens.

The 6-foot-7 freshman is a matchup problem for any team. His 230-pound frame can punish opponents inside and his team-high 23 3-pointers make other big men have to cover a lot of ground.

Point guard John Lowe has also been a nice find for Russell.

The speedy guard leads MC with 30 assists and has also chipped in just over eight points per game.

The pieces seem to be there for a good season, and the Blue Devils have already shown their potential with half their losses coming by six points or less.

Now they need to get over the hump.

"The difference between this team and last year is we have guys that really care about losing," Walker said. "We're more like a family.

"And once we get on the same page, we're going to take off."

MERCED COLLEGE MEN'S BASKETBALL TEAM

Record: 4-10.

Key Returners: Lavell Shipman F,

Erin Walker F, Stephon Thomas F, Adam Grubb F.

New Additions: Logan Wiens F,

John Lowe G, JerMichael Williams F, Glen Ayers F.

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