Southern Oregon may be an underdog at the NAIA Division II men's basketball tournament according to the seeding committee and the pollsters, but at least one prognosticator believes the Raiders have a chance to make some noise in Point Lookout, Mo., over the next seven days. That would be Branson Tri-Lakes News reporter Pat Dailey, who predicted in a column Tuesday that 18th-ranked SOU will play No. 4 Northwestern in the national championship game.
"Really?" SOU head coach Brian McDermott said, when told of the prediction. "That would be fun."
It would be historic, too. The Raiders have never advanced beyond the quarterfinals. But they've never had a team quite like this, either.
The Raiders face 14th-ranked Madonna University of Michigan in the first round of the 32-team tournament today at 4 p.m. Central (2 p.m. Pacific). All the national tournament games will be played at Keeter Gymnasium, on the campus of College of the Ozarks. The winner of the SOU-Madonna game will play either No. 3-seeded Northwood or the unseeded host, College of the Ozarks, in the second round Friday.
At first glance, Madonna doesn't look like a great draw for Southern Oregon. The Crusaders boast the nation's second-ranked defense in terms of shooting percentage (.373), are led by a small, quick point guard, junior Bobby Naubert, who specializes in driving to the hoop, and with nine wins in a row they are one of the hottest teams in the tournament.
But the Raiders are also peaking, having won eight of their last nine, ranking sixth in the nation in shooting percentage (.494) and are led by a pair of big men in Eric Thompson (6-foot-7) and David Sturner (6-8) who can create matchup headaches for just about any team in the tournament.
The good news for the Raiders is, they appear to be playing their best basketball at the right time. After falling to Concordia at home on Jan. 26, SOU (24-8) ran off eight straight wins by an average score of 82-68. The impressive late-season surge included an 80-73 road win over 23rd-ranked Northwest and an 89-71 road victory over eighth-ranked Eastern Oregon in the Cascade Conference semifinals.
What has prompted the Raiders' resurgence? Trust, says McDermott.
"We've trusted, not only each other but we've trusted our stuff," he said. "Instead of trying to get shots on our own, we let the offense produce it. And when we do that, we're pretty tough to guard.
"If we trust each other then we're going to do fine. But if we don't trust each other, because of the moment or whatever, and try to do things on our own, we won't do so well."
Madonna should provide a stiff opening-round test. The Crusaders (24-8) are coming off a 14-point victory over ninth-ranked Davenport in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference championship game and haven't lost since Jan. 29. They are led by the 5-10 Naubert, who ranks fourth in the nation in assists (6.9) and leads the team in both scoring (16.7) and steals (1.4).
McDermott says Naubert typically looks to get to the basket off the dribble then finish or dish out to one of the Crusaders' dangerous outside shooters, such as Travis Schuba (16.3 ppg) and Fred Williams (12.9 ppg).
"We're going to have to guard the pick and roll," McDermott said. "If we can't do that then we'll be in a little bit of trouble."
After watching Naubert on film, however, McDermott doesn't believe SOU's man-to-man defense will be overwhelmed.
"There are guys in our league like that," he said. "They don't have anything that we haven't seen."
Defensively, the Crusaders play mostly man-to-man, and play it well. They've held five of their last seven opponents to less than 60 points, including the 72-58 win over Davenport in which Davenport hit just 6 of 35 field goal attempts in the second half.
Anchoring Madonna in the middle is 6-7, 185-pound forward Eoghann Stephens, who leads the nation in blocks (3.0 per game) and the Crusaders in rebounds (5.7).
"They pack it in a little bit, so you're going to have to make a few shots," McDermott said. "I think what's going to be interesting is, they'll be looking to stay in the lane but they're not going to be able to stay inside against us. The thing is, we're bigger physically so we're going to get more one-on-ones inside than what they're used to because of the way we shoot it, and we'll see who wins those battles."
The road won't get any easier for the Raiders should they get past Madonna. Besides Northwood (Fla.), SOU's quarter of the bracket also includes seventh-ranked Saint Xavier (Ill.) and 10th-ranked Indiana Southeast.
Southern Oregon is making its first appearance at the national tournament since 2006 and fourth overall. The Raiders best postseason run came in 2005, when they suffered a heartbreaking loss in the national quarterfinals.
SOU hasn't played since losing to fifth-ranked Warner Pacific in the CCC championship game on Feb. 26, but McDermott says the Raiders have had three of their best practices of the season since arriving in Missouri on Sunday.
"They're ready now," he said. "They want to play."