By JJ Yang

From the grating sound of squeaky sneakers, the echoing swoosh of a three-pointer and the halftime buzzer reverberating through the gym, one thing is clear: it’s basketball season.
The UC Santa Cruz men’s basketball team played its final exhibition game Saturday, going head-to-head against a team of alumni. From the get-go, however, it was apparent that the summer rust has yet to wear off. The Slugs struggled to keep pace with the alumni, eventually losing 88-86.
"We came out flat and sloppy," junior forward Jon Mercado said. Mercado was sidelined due to injury. "The team just didn’t click."
The current squad found themselves at a slim 46-43 halftime deficit. Senior guard Murphy Holmes, one of only six upperclassmen on the team, had a chance to tie at the buzzer but was stripped of the ball by the alumni defense. Despite the loss, head coach Gordon Johnson offered an optimistic view of his team.
"We are very young," Johnson said. "It’s early and I’m proud of the way our players stepped up against a very tough alumni team."
The team’s biggest setback so far has been a series of preseason injuries. According to Johnson, not having Mercado and Tom Morrison has really hurt the offense.
Johnson said that the duo accounts for between 35 and 40 points per night.
Mercado, who was nominated during his freshman year for an honorable mention on the 2004-2005 All-Independent Team, will be out of action in the early season due to a hamstring injury.
"I scored 20 points in our first scrimmage, I really thought it was going to be a good year," Mercado said. "It’s just really tough sitting on the sidelines."
Coming off a disappointing 9-16 record one season ago, the Slugs are determined to make a statement this time around.
"We have a very good shot of winning 16-18 games this year," Johnson said. "We have a lot of depth and an aggressive, up-tempo style that will suffocate the opponents."
It’s this depth that kept the Slugs competitive during the alumni game. But the loss is also an indicator that the team still has a long way to go.
"The game was a reality check for us," Mercado said. "The alumni aren’t old chumps; they’re young, physical, and very good."
Recent graduate and alumni player Brian "Buzz" Moyada offered some praises for the new team.
"Considering it was their first game, I was greatly impressed," Moyada said. "They have a lot of talent."
Coach Johnson agreed.
"The team will get better as the season progresses," Johnson said. "The fans will enjoy this new brand of Slug basketball."