A lot of college basketball programs would love to call a two-year absence from the NAIA national tournament an official drought.
For the Southern Oregon men’s basketball team, entering the 2018-19 season with aspirations of getting back to where they haven’t been the past two seasons isn’t something the Raiders aren’t shying away from talking about.
“The national tournament is definitely where we expect to be this year,” SOU senior guard Tristen Holmes said. “We don’t just want to get there, we want to make our mark. We want to win a conference title — and we think that this year more than any other year that I’ve been here. I think we’re ready to make that step and win conference.”
SOU, ranked 22nd nationally in the NAIA preseason coaches’ poll that was released on Tuesday, will take the first steps in what it hopes will be a visit back to South Dakota come March in just a matter of days. The Raiders, who went 20-12 last season, open up their campaign this coming Tuesday when they travel to Eugene to face New Hope Christian.
The Raiders will wrap up their three-game road trip to open the season next weekend in Arizona, playing in the Fultz Memorial Classic at Arizona Christian.
Seven of the Raiders’ eight non-conference games are away from home, with their first-ever game at Lithia Motors Pavilion set for Tuesday, Nov. 13, against New Hope Christian.
“It’s a good number of (non-conference) games where it’s 50/50 and you can win or lose,” SOU head coach Brian McDermott said. “We’ve got enough of them — and those are the kinds you want. We have a few games that aren’t that way where you should win if you do things right, but we’ve got seven of them where it’s 50/50 going into it.”
McDermott, entering his 23rd season at the helm in Ashland, figures the Raiders to be much improved in two main aspects.
For one, the Raiders are deeper and more experienced, with 12 players back from last season’s squad.
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the Raiders’ longtime head coach expects his team to be much better on the defensive end this coming season.
A year ago, the Raiders finished sixth in the Cascade Conference in scoring defense at 79.7 points per game, while allowing opponents to shoot nearly 45 percent from the floor.
In a Cascade landscape where six of the 11 teams in the conference averaged over 80 points a game, the Raiders’ goal of improving on the defensive end could prove vital.
“We’re going to be way better defensively than we’ve been in about six or seven years,” McDermott said. “We have some length and we stay in front of the ball better. We spent the last four or five years where we’ve had trouble containing the dribble, but we’re pretty good at it right now. Hopefully that holds true when we face other people.”
Southern Oregon’s improved depth should, in theory, help ease the departures of the two seniors on last season’s roster, guards Ben DeSaulnier and Kenny Meyer. DeSaulnier, who finished his career as the second-ranked scorer in school history, led the Raiders in scoring each of the past three seasons.
“You definitely can’t replace Kenny and Ben,” Holmes said, “but I feel like one thing coming into this year is that we’ll be more athletic than last year and be faster and quicker with everybody aging together. I think we’ll be a lot different than last year, but maybe in a good way or different way, I would say.”
Holmes and forwards Jordan Hunt and Tate Hoffman all started at least 29 games a season ago, giving the Raiders — who were picked to finish third in the CCC’s preseason coaches’ poll — plenty of experience to lead the way despite losing two key cogs in DeSaulnier and Meyer.
And as much as McDermott likes his five-player recruiting class, the competition for minutes is going to be a fierce one.
“All those guys are a year older,” McDermott said. “We have a good group of juniors, a few seniors, so the good part about that is we have five freshman and some of them are really talented and they’re playing with experienced guys. The last time we had a good freshman class, a big one, they weren’t playing with very many experienced guys so it put a little too much of a load on them. I think this year that load is going to be shared a little bit more.”
SOU is part of a four-team group of Cascade teams ranked nationally — a sign that the battle for the conference title is going to be a competitive race once again.
And after winning 20 games a year ago and not having a national tournament appearance to show for it, the Raiders are hoping that the two-year run without a trip to the dance doesn’t have any more time added on to it.
“We’re ready. We’ve been playing each other for the last month and I think we’re kind of getting tired of seeing the same faces (in practice) every day, so it will be nice to get out a little bit,” Holmes said. “On our team there’s only two people who have experienced the national tournament, so there’s just a lot of hunger out here for winning in general, really.
“These last couple years we didn’t do what we could have and I feel like this is the year that everybody needs to come together and we have the guys to get to where we want to be this year.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.