UC Merced men’s basketball coach John Sykes knows his Golden Bobcats will be challenged in their first varsity season, going up against universities with long-established programs and traditions and rosters full of experience. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t laid out some very specific goals for his players.
“I want them to be competitive and play hard for 40 minutes,” Sykes said. “I want them to have good character and good sportsmanship. I want them to play as hard as they can, but not play dirty. We want to go out and gain respect for our program, and the only way you do that is respect the other team but play hard so they respect you.”
The athletic Bobcats will play their first game Saturday, when they travel to face Westmont College. Six days later, UC Merced will get a taste of the big time when it goes on the road again to face Santa Clara, an NCAA Division I program, in the Broncos’ opener.
UC Merced’s first home game will be a Nov. 19 tilt against Fresno Pacific. The Bobcats will also compete in the Fresno Pacific Tournament this month and the Westmont Warrior Classic in December before beginning their inaugural California Pacific Conference season on the road Jan. 7 against Cal Maritime.
Sykes said fans can expect an up-tempo, exciting brand of basketball from the Bobcats, who hope to make up for a lack of size with hustle and effort.
“We’ll press full court, man to man, try to get the pace to our liking,” he said. “We shoot the ball well. We’re quick. It’s just a matter of getting those two things together and not rushing everything.”
The Bobcats are expecting to get major contributions from two players who founded the UC Merced men’s basketball club team two years ago, seniors Aki Chambers and Daniel Castillo.
Chambers, a 6-foot-3 wing from San Anselmo, was the leading scorer on the Bobcats’ club team the past two years.
“He’s very versatile and elusive,” Sykes said. “He’s so wiry — quick, but strong, too.”
Castillo, a 6-footer from Stockton, is making the shift from point guard to shooting guard this season. Sykes said Castillo’s shooting has improved greatly, and the emergence of junior point guard Michael Yonemoto, from San Francicso, has allowed Sykes to take advantage of the strengths of both.
The Bobcats’ starting five will be rounded out by power forward Javon Barrino, a 6-4 junior from San Diego, and center Ahmed Elhendy, a 6-5 senior from Illinois. Others likely to see plenty of action include Anthony Shephard, a senior guard from Fresno, and Griffin Alexander, a sophomore guard from Stockton.
Sykes will also give plenty of minutes to the three freshmen on his roster — guard Mitchell Flores (Stockton), forward Kevin Ellsworth (Clovis) and forward Garrett Hill (Merced).
“I expect them to do a lot,” Sykes said. “I’ll throw them in the fire. I think they’re capable of holding their own, and the only way they can learn is to get them in there.”