Sports

James Burns: Shooters beware -- Spanos can be tricky on the eye

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

The scouting reports are set. Have been for a couple of days now.

But are they complete?

The Golden Valley and Merced boys basketball teams continue their pursuit of a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title today at the University of the Pacific.

It's the quarterfinal round, which means the hardwood at the Spanos Center is officially a cupcake-free zone. No softies allowed.

The eight remaining teams have survived long seasons, rivalry and trap games, and enough bumps and bruises to keep trainers panting.

Nothing about today's games will be easy -- and that's the way playoff basketball should be.

As for those scouting reports, the ones painted on the inside of every player's eyelids, well, they probably read like this for our local challengers...

No. 3 Golden Valley will take on No. 6 Sh-Sh-Sh-Sheldon in the today's marquee game.

The name alone has sent shivers down the spine of every title-contending Division I coach for more than a month now.

Sheldon has the requisite size and overwhelming talent -- READ: 6-6 sophomore Darius Nelson and four-year point guard Marcus Jackson -- to take this tournament by storm.

"They might be the most athletic team in the section," said Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter.

In the afternoon's first game, No. 5 Merced takes on No. 13 Burbank.

Or is it Davidson?

Because I'm not sure.

Burbank feels a lot like the bracket-busting college program from North Carolina. Low seed hungry for an upset. Dynamic but small shooting star (5-foot-11 Terrance Mitchell).

"Athletic. Pretty quick," Merced coach Marcus Knott said. "Their point guard shoots the ball well. He's their best player, averaging the most points."

The scouting reports sound pretty complete, ripe with must-dos and must-stops, except...

Both are missing one very big, very intimidating component: Alex G. Spanos' $7 million, 6,150-seat monster, the Spanos Center.

Nestled near the west entrance, the Spanos Center almost gets lost in the luster and shine of Pacific's other athletic facilities.

There is, of course, Stagg Memorial Stadium, home to many of the section's football championship games.

And the brand-spanking new baseball complex, Klein Family Field.

But make no mistake about it, while the Spanos Center might be a warm, cozy confine for college hoops, it can be a dream killer for prep basketball teams.

Shooters beware.

The Spanos Center is tricky on the eye. The reason: Depth perception.

It's everything to shooting specialists like Golden Valley's Alex Fletcher and Merced's Allen Huddleston.

In the half-second they might get to catch and shoot, Fletcher and Huddleston must check their defenders, find the rim, calculate distance and strength and then heave.

For most of their varsity careers, the basketball layouts have all been of relative size and shape -- small gyms, where the back walls run up against the glass backboards.

Gauging distance has come easy, largely because the sight lines never change.

"When I'm shooting, once I get the ball in my hands, my mind goes blank. It's habit, I guess," said Fletcher.

Now stretch the space behind the backboard, creating a 20- or 25-foot cavity. Throw in some floor-level bleachers and a crowd overhead.

How's it then?

"It's different," Huddleston said without pause. "The backdrop makes a huge difference."

Here's the lowdown on the Spanos Center: Every shot will appear closer to the eye, because the back wall and fans are set back.

But short-arm a 19-footer that feels like 17 and you risk a shooter's nightmare: cries of "Air ball! Air ball!"

Said Knott: "The biggest thing about playing in places like this is shooting. It's depth perception.

"Our gym is really small. The walls are right there. When you get in there and have empty space, it takes awhile to get used to.

"The first team to adjust to the environment, will probably win the game."

Knott knows.

The Spanos Center -- and enough turnovers to fill a supermarket pastry aisle -- slapped his team straight out of last season's playoffs.

"Last year, against Edison, we didn't shoot well," Knott said of a 72-63 loss. "They had a guy (Brandon Pascual) who adjusted and it hurt us late. They took us out."

By "they," he means Pascual and the Spanos Center.

Two names you won't find on the Sheldon and Burbank scouting reports today.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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