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Raiders' men turn heads with fast start

Commentary

Raiders' men turn heads with fast start

Well, will you look at who's sitting atop the Cascade Conference men's basketball standings?

Southern Oregon University. Are you nuts? Who's responsible for this typographical error?

You mean to tell me the team with the least scholarship money in the conference, the team with almost no history of success in this conference, is in first place?

It can't be. Does this have something to do with the El Nino effect, by chance?

No, it has to do with a new coach with a history of rebuilding the less fortunate. Brian McDermott, in his third year at SOU, is working his magic again.

McDermott has the team once known as the Runnin' Raiders on the move. But these are the Rugged Raiders. They don't run the floor with precision or grace, and they don't astound anybody with 3-point shooting, although wings Chris Schmerbach of Klamath Falls and Tom Chipps of Eugene have been on fire of late.

Still, McDermott has them off to a fast start at 5-3. Even more eye-catching is their 2-0 start in conference play. The two conference wins came last weekend over rich and talented Idaho schools at McNeal Pavilion.

Even Oregon Tech, last year's NAIA runner-up, couldn't do that. Last weekend, The Owls defeated Northwest Nazarene College but lost to the same Albertson team SOU defeated 67-62 Friday.

What's going on here?

Actually, I didn't think we played that well against NNC, says McDermott. But against Albertson, we probably played about as well as we can.

SOU will remain atop the Cascade Conference for the next three weeks. The Raiders don't play another league game until New Year's Eve, when they venture to Western Baptist.

I don't mind having three weeks off from conference play, says McDermott. It will give us some time to work on our game and bring a couple of kids along to help us more.

The news of SOU's wins over Albertson and Northwest Nazarene had faxes buzzing on Monday, as the word spread that the once-lowly Raiders are now a factor in the conference championship race.

McDermott, who rebuilt Dakota State from a doormat to an NAIA final four team earlier this decade, is threatening to do it again in Ashland with a meager budget and equally low expectations.

I think we proved last weekend we belong (in the title hunt), he says. We'll see what happens. There's a long way to go. But it's a real source of confidence for our kids to get off to a start like this.

There are a number of reasons for the quick start.

One is their bulky front line, composed of 6-foot-8 Ryan Valley, 6-7 Scott Logue and 6-6 Amos Baker. It's the most physical front line in the Cascade Conference.

Playing Valley and Logue together helps the Raiders set a physical tone for the way they want to play.

It sends out the message I want, says McDermott. People know how we are going to play. And that we won't back down.

Plus, starting the big guys together gets them in the game more. When we start substituting, they aren't in there together all the time. I usually sub them for each other after that.

Behind their big three, the Raiders rank third in the Cascade Conference in rebounding. They continue their rugged play at the defensive end, ranking first in shooting percentage defense (37 percent) and first in 3-point shooting defense (26 percent).

Southern Oregon is shooting just 45 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range. But with the Raiders' tough rebounding and active man-to-man defense, those numbers have been good enough to produce wins.

Suddenly, the guy who took a team of leftovers from the Tom McCracken era at SOU and went 2-29 his first year, is focusing on 20 or more wins, a possible conference title and a national playoff berth.

Think that's nonsense? So did the folks in Madison, S.D., when McDermott talked about putting Dakota State in the national playoffs.

Four years later, it was in the national semifinals.

McDermott employs a tough-love approach as he rebuilds the Raiders.

With this team, I have to motivate in a different way than I would prefer, he says. What it comes down to is finding a way to motivate them to play hard.

I don't like being a screamer. But with this team, that's what seems to work. Anybody who has walked into our gym during practice the last three weeks could be intimidated by what they see.

But it's working. The Raiders play with extreme intensity in practice. And that intensity carries over into games, as it did when it beat Albertson, the team with the most scholarship money in the conference, according to McDermott.

Meanwhile, the SOU coach spreads his money to all of his players.

You do the best you can with what you have, says McDermott. The scholarship money has gone up, but not enough. We have to make up for the lack of scholarship money with a nice campus and a nice atmosphere (in which) to live and go to school. I believe we have those things, but you still need the big money to get the best players.

Ideally, McDermott would like to recruit fast, athletic players in the 6-5 range. But let's get real. There aren't many of those hybrids in Oregon. And he's being asked to recruit Oregon high school players by the SOU administration.

That's two strikes against him. He has minimal money and he can't bring in many out-of-state players, unless those players can pay for their own educations.

But the message is as clear to McDermott as it was to McCracken, despite those circumstances. Just win, baby.

So far, he's doing just that.

(Randy Hammericksen is the Mail Tribune's sports columnist. He can be reached at 776-4499.)