ASHLAND — As one of the best leagues in NAIA Division II men's basketball, the Cascade Collegiate Conference has a way of separating contenders from the pretenders, and Southern Oregon head coach Brian McDermott believes the 16th-ranked Raiders will prove to be the former.
"Yeah, I think we're legit," said McDermott, whose team is one of four CCC squads ranked in the top 25, "but I think that about a lot of teams in the league this year. There are probably five or six teams that can win it, which is not normal. There will probably be two or three that will separate, but right now "… it's really deep."
The Raiders (6-3), picked to finish fourth in the league's preseason coaches' poll, open league play with a two-game road trip this weekend. They'll face Northwest Christian (6-3) in Eugene tonight and Corban (2-3) in Salem on Saturday.
McDermott and company aim to be one of those teams that eventually separate from the pack in late January and early February, which would set up the Raiders nicely for what they hope will be the program's first long postseason run since 2006.
Contending for Cascade supremacy would mark another stair-step in what has been a slow but steady climb from the doldrums of SOU's 2008-09 season, which saw the Raiders win just nine games. They've since crawled out of the league's cellar, winning 12 games the following year, 14 in 2010-11 and 17 last season.
"Well, we're better than we were (last year), so I would hope we would see an improvement out of that," McDermott said. "We felt like we had a pretty tough preseason schedule, so we'll see how good the league is and how well that transfers to Ws. But we expect to be better, we expect to have more wins. Our goal is to get to the national tournament, and we're not going to get there with 17 wins."
Southern Oregon will feature two of the best big men in the conference in 6-foot-7 sophomore Eric Thompson and 6-8 junior David Sturner. Thompson, SOU's only returning all-CCC selection, led the Raiders in points and rebounds last season but may not have to carry quite the same load now that Sturner is in the mix.
An Oregon State transfer, Sturner leads the Raiders in rebounds (7.3 per game) and ranks second to Thompson in points (14.7), and he's doing so efficiently, shooting 56 percent from the floor and 38 percent from 3-point land.
Adding another talented post player has made the Raiders a tough team to defend. Southern Oregon is scoring 82 points per game, which ranks second in the conference, and is shooting a league-best 50 percent from the field. Those are impressive numbers, especially given McDermott's assertion that his team is actually in the middle of a shooting slump, which he says is bound to end eventually.
"We were not very good offensively the first three games," he said. "So we've hopefully improved since then, but we really haven't shot the ball very well yet. We make a lot of layups, but we haven't made a lot of shots, so we're kind of waiting for that to happen. I think it's one of the best shooting teams I've ever had."
While McDermott has yet to settle on a starting lineup, he's honing in on an eight-man rotation that figures to be one of the deepest he's had in some time. Besides Thompson and Sturner, the Raiders will rely heavily on junior guard Kyle Tedder, junior wing Dex Daum, junior point guard Jeff Bush and junior guard Taylor Roos.
Tedder, who has started six of nine games, is the Raiders' third-leading scorer (12.3 ppg) and is shooting 50 percent from the field, including 37 percent on 3s. Daum, one of just two Raiders (Sturner's the other) who has started every game for SOU, is averaging 6.7 points. Bush has the third best assist-to-turnover ratio (3.6 to 2.8) in the conference, and Roos, is averaging 7.7 points on 58 percent shooting, including 54 percent from behind the arc.
"I feel pretty good about (SOU's depth), both inside and out," McDermott said.
Senior forward Terriel Thomas, who at 6-foot-5 will also provide SOU with more inside muscle, has the skill set to start, McDermott said, but will primarily be used as an off-the-bench spark plug.
Other Cascade teams that are ranked are No. 4 Eastern Oregon, No. 13 Warner Pacific and No. 20 Northwest. And then there's Oregon Tech, the defending national champion which opened the season ranked second before plummeting out of the top 25 after a 7-3 preseason that included a 76-60 loss to Southern Oregon.
A few key games are just around the corner: The Raiders host Eastern Oregon, which is undefeated at 12-0, on Dec. 14; travel to Portland to take on Warner Pacific on Dec. 22; and will be in Klamath Falls for the rematch against Oregon Tech on Jan. 5.
"I think we'll have a good year, but there are lots of levels of good," McDermott said. "You can be good, you can be really good or you can be great. We'd like to get to that last rung."