No. 3 Raiders ready for Cascade Conference opener

They've been to the national tournament, they've advanced to the NAIA Division II men's basketball version of the Sweet 16 and now they're back with an almost identical roster.

So what's the next step for the Southern Oregon University Raiders?

A veteran coach with more than 250 wins under his belt at SOU, Brian McDermott knows better than to start throwing out bold predictions. But even McDermott has a hard time containing his excitement when talking about the third-ranked Raiders (9-1), who open Cascade Collegiate Conference play tonight at Bob Riehm Arena against 13th-ranked Concordia (7-1).

"This team's good enough to win (a national title)," he said. "We felt that last year we probably were in the top 10 in the (national) tournament, and anytime you're in that group you've got a chance to win it. But you've got to do some things before you get there, and that's what we're trying to figure out."

"Some things" may include living up to that lofty national ranking and claiming what would be the program's seventh league title and first since 2005, but McDermott is more concerned with how fully his team develops en route to Point Lookout, Mo., than how much hardware it collects along the way.

Three Raiders who made the all-CCC preseason team will shoulder the majority of that load and give SOU a triple threat few opponents will be able to match: junior forward Eric Thompson, senior center David Sturner and senior guard Kyle Tedder. Thompson (6-foot-7, 235 pounds) is averaging a team-best 20.6 points, 7 rebounds and is shooting 55 percent; Sturner (6-8, 230) is averaging a double-double (16.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and 1.4 blocks; and Tedder (6-2, 190) is averaging 10.4 points and, though he's off to a lukewarm start (41 percent shooting, including 33 percent on 3s), spreads out defenses with his almost unlimited shooting range.

Point guard Jeff Bush (6-2, 205), who ranks third in the country in assists per game (7.8), and forward Tim Weber (6-7, 170) round out a starting five that's shooting 54 percent from the floor, including 40 percent from long range.

Those impressive offensive numbers — SOU is averaging 89.4 points and shooting 52 percent as a team — should not come as a surprise to anybody who followed the motion offense-running Raiders last season. But what may surprise fans, and send shivers down the spines of opposing coaches, is what the Raiders are doing at the other end of the court. SOU has held opponents to 37.6 percent shooting, the fourth-best mark in the country, which is a big reason why its average margin of victory is a whopping 21 points.

"Obviously, we shoot the ball pretty well and we pass the ball extremely well," McDermott said. "But the thing that we didn't know was, where were we going to be defensively. We've made great strides in the last four weeks. They're smart guys and they knew what they needed to do to get better, and they've listened. Some things we'll never get because of who we are, but we can scheme around those things."

McDermott is pleased and a little surprised with how well the Raiders have picked up his defensive system. They've managed to overcome the lack of a true lock-down defender, he says, with great team play.

"We're kind of getting there," he said, "but we do it in a way that's different than my teams in the past have done it."

That defense will face its biggest test yet tonight. Concordia leads the nation in points per game (104.38), is shooting 55 percent from the floor, the third-best mark nationally, and is led by the nation's No. 4 leading scorer Adam Herman (27.1 ppg), a 6-6, 220-pound forward.

"He catches the ball around 15 feet and goes off the dribble," McDermott said of Herman's game. "We just can't let him go crazy."

After Concordia, the Raiders host another big early-season matchup Saturday against Warner Pacific, the team picked to finish second to SOU in the CCC preseason coaches' poll. After that, the Raiders will have two weeks to get ready for their first big road trip of the season, Dec. 20 at Eastern Oregon and the following night at College of Idaho.

SOU's first league game against Oregon Tech, picked to finish third in the conference, is Jan. 18 in Ashland, and the Raiders wrap up their regular season schedule Feb. 21-22 with what could be a pivotal road swing through Portland for games against Warner Pacific and Concordia.

"I think it's going to be a pretty good year, regardless," McDermott said. "We're deep enough and good enough that we're going to win a bunch of games. I like our chances, and I really like our team — it's far and away the best offensive team I've ever had.

"But the conference is such a grind — 18 games. No one's going to win it or lose it this weekend, but it would be nice to get off to a good start."

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