ASHLAND — The laundry list of questions that Southern Oregon brought into last season is getting shorter. No longer reliant on unproven underclassmen, the Raiders know they have the parts to win. And, as indicated by their No. 11 national preseason ranking, they're not the only ones.
The degree to which those parts have matured since an 18-13 campaign, wherein the ups and downs of growing up were put in plain sight, will first be on display at 7:30 p.m. tonight against the University of Maine Fort Kent at Mountain Avenue Gym. A year after over half of their minutes were distributed to freshmen, the Raiders have five starters back, a game-tested rotation and no excuses not to challenge in a seemingly wide-open Cascade Conference.
With six returning players who averaged between eight and points — headlined by all-conference selections Ben DeSaulnier, a senior wing, and Tristen Holmes, a junior point guard — their scoring ability is not in question. In 2016-17, the Raiders were coming off a stretch in which they ranked top-10 nationally in field-goal percentage and assists four years in a row, and in CCC play they went on to post the top shooting mark (49.2) and the second-most assists per game (18). Their ceiling this year will again be dictated, however, by how they perform in other facets of the game - most notably in defending the 3-point line and on the glass, according to 22nd-year coach Brian McDermott.
"Some of that stuff comes with being more experienced and maturing physically," he said. "We should have a better understanding of how to guard shooters at this level, and eventually you get tired of playing good defense for 20 seconds and then giving up an offensive rebound."
Added McDermott: "We're quite a ways ahead of where we were — first for the coaches, knowing what we have and being able to use our talent a little better. And I think the players, having been on the floor together for a while now, understand how their teammates play and trust each other a little more."
LAST SEASON: The 2016-17 Raiders went 12-8 in the CCC, landing in fifth place, and were eliminated in the first round of the conference tournament by Oregon Tech. After replacing three starters, they won fewer than 22 games for the first time since 2011-12 and missed the national tournament for the second time since that season. Their downfalls were defending — they ranked eighth in CCC play in both points allowed (85.3) and 3-point defense (36.7 percent) — and rebounding, as an all-freshman frontcourt led to the league's 10th-best offensive rebounding rate (21.7 percent) and a middle-of-the-pack showing on the defensive boards (71.5 percent).
POSITION BY POSITION:
GUARDS: Following in the footsteps of All-Americans Joel Spear and Tim Weber, Tristen Holmes took over the reins at point guard as a sophomore last year and didn't need long to distinguish himself. While directing SOU's motion offense, the 6-foot-2 North Medford product took on a larger scoring load than his predecessors with averages of 14.6 points (up 12 from his freshman season) and 4.8 assists that ranked 12th and fifth, respectively, within the CCC. He did that work efficiently, shooting 53 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3, and took off in the latter part of the season with 19 points per game over SOU's final 14.
Behind Holmes, sophomore Aaron Borich will have an expanded role after averaging eight minutes in 23 games off the bench as a true freshman. Michael Polman, a sophomore transfer, will add depth after averaging 16 points last year at Cero Coso College (Calif.).
Senior Kenny Meyer has started 48 games and scored in double figures 29 times at the other guard spot. As a junior, he racked up 8.8 points a night and was the team's second-leading assist man with 93. Along with his floor-stretching ability, the Raiders' top 3-point shooter a season ago was Conor Carroll, whose instant offense came in the form of 8.2 points on 47-percent shooting and 46 triples as a freshman. In conference action, his 48-percent accuracy from 3 was the third-best in the CCC.
WINGS: Entering his senior season, two-time All-CCC selection Ben DeSaulnier already ranks seventh in team history with 1,506 career points and is only 32 away from the No. 4 spot. An adept shooter and slasher and frequent occupier of the free-throw line at 6-3, a season ago he ranked fourth in the CCC in points (17.8) and was top-10 in shooting percentage (52.8), free-throw accuracy (83.9) and steals (1.3). In three seasons, he's tallied 131 3-pointers and scored at least 20 points on 34 occasions.
Sophomore Kerry Cook, in his third year at SOU, is also capable of an uptick in production on both ends of the floor after appearing in 18 games and shooting 12-for-27 last year. Eventually, after recovering from a foot injury sustained in preseason practice, true freshman Tez Allen is expected to be a major factor in the rotation too. A bulky, 6-5 Nevadan, Allen averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists as a senior at Carson High and can play multiple positions.
FORWARDS: As Hunter Bradford takes a redshirt while rehabbing after an off-season surgery, sophomores Tate Hoffman and Jordan Hunt are again penciled in as the starters down low. Hoffman, who shot up an inch to 6-7, was one of the top-shooting big men in the league as a freshman, posting 8.6 points on 48 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3 to go with 5.1 rebounds. Hunt averaged 10.4 points and led the Raiders in blocks (1.5) and rebounds (5.8), and should be outmatched physically less frequently after adding 15 pounds to his 6-9 frame.
Beau Hamilton, a 6-6 sophomore, gives the Raiders another returning option down low, and 6-7 redshirt-freshman Josh Washington is expected to make an immediate impact after transferring from South Puget Sound C.C. (Wash.). Reunited with his old South Medford teammates Bradford and Carroll, Washington athleticism will help SOU most in the defense and rebounding departments.