Unpredictable Raiders back in Point Lookout
POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. — Since the beginning of the season, deciphering what to make of the Southern Oregon men's basketball team has been a difficult task for the rest of the NAIA, and rightfully so.
At 10:15 a.m. Central Time today (8 a.m. Pacific), the 17th-ranked Raiders (24-8 overall) will provide a closer look when they take on the 14th-ranked Mount Mercy Mustangs (25-7) of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the second of 16 first-round games of the NAIA Division II National Tournament at College of the Ozarks. The winner will meet either top-ranked Saint Francis (Ind.) (29-4) or Dakota State (S.D.) (19-13) at 10:15 a.m. in Friday's second round.
The matchup between SOU and MMU will feature contrasting styles — shooters versus slashers, and a condensed bench versus one of the most liberally-used backup units around — but, more importantly, two rosters that know how to win on this stage. The Raiders are in the tournament for the third time in four years — they advanced to the second round as the No. 18 team in 2013 and to the quarterfinals as the No. 21 team last season — and the Mustangs are back for the third year in a row, having earned their first tournament victory since 1996 as the No. 9 team last season with a 64-61 defeat of Cal Maritime. Eight players who helped SOU make its run are back, as are three of MMU's top performers from a season ago.
How They Got Here: SOU went 16-4 during the Cascade Conference regular-season slate to finish second in the standings and claim the CCC's second automatic bid to the tournament. After losing two All-Americans, the Raiders were picked to finish fifth in the CCC and didn't receive any votes in the preseason top-25 poll. However, just like last year — when they went 13-2 in games that were within two points in the final two minutes — the Raiders thrived again in close contests, going 13-0 against conference opponents in games that were within five points in the final five minutes and winning 11 CCC games that they trailed at halftime.
The Mustangs are back in the tournament after also earning an automatic berth, which was secured by winning the Association of Independent Institutions tournament. MMU was No. 10 in last year's postseason poll — one spot behind SOU — and No. 15 in the preseason but dropped out after a 10-5 start. The Mustangs worked their way back into the poll by winning 15 of their next 17.
About the Bracket: The 32-team bracket is split into four quadrants. SOU's is dubbed the "Naismith" quadrant, and within it the Mustangs are the No. 4 seed and the Raiders are the No. 5 seed. Among the other six teams in the Naismith Bracket are Saint Francis (Ind.), the top overall seed; Dakota State (S.D.), which SOU's Brian McDermott coached for 10 years and led to the 1992 Final Four prior to arriving in Ashland; No. 2 seed Cornerstone (Mich.), which won its third title last season and returned all five starters; and No. 3 seed Keiser (Fla.), the school formerly known as Northwood, which is led by former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino and is making its ninth appearance in 10 years.
The Raiders went 3-2 this year against tournament teams with wins over No. 15 Warner Pacific (twice) and No. 11 Northwest Christian, and losses to WPC, NCU and No. 23 Cal Maritime. The Mustangs went 6-3 against tournament teams with two wins apiece over unranked squads Dakota State, York (Neb.) and College of the Ozark, two losses to No. 3 St. Francis (Ill.) and one loss to No. 4 Briar Cliff (Iowa).
Tournament History: Making their sixth appearance in the Div. II tournament (all since 1999), the Raiders 5-5 overall, 3-2 in the first round, 3-3 as the higher-ranked team and 2-2 as the lower-ranked team. They've made the quarterfinal round twice, in 2005 and 2015. Last year they started with a 73-71 upset of 10th-ranked Midland (Neb.), defeated No. 24 Grace (Ind.) 68-62, and led second-ranked Embry-Riddle (Fla.) with nine minutes to play before falling 79-71.
The Mustangs made their first appearance in 1996 and were eliminated in the second round. They made their return in 2013 as the No. 12 overall seed, getting upset by St. Thomas (Fla.) in the first round. They were No. 9 last year when they defeated Cal Maritime, 64-61, and were knocked out by No. 8 Davenport (Mich.), 70-67, which eventually advanced to the semifinals.
• The only other team from Iowa that SOU has ever met is St. Ambrose, which the eighth-ranked Raiders defeated 85-74 in the first round of the 2005 national tournament for their first-ever tournament victory.
• Higher-ranked teams went 15-17 in the first rounds of the 2013 and '14 tournaments before going 14-2 last year.
• SOU's opening-round upset of 14th-ranked Madonna (Mich.) was the Cascade Conference's only win at the 2013 tournament, and the CCC went 0-3 in 2014. Last year the CCC went 4-0 in the first round and was represented by SOU and College of Idaho in the quarterfinals. Oregon Tech won the 2012 title but hasn't been back since.
• SOU's senior Australians, Joel Spear and Jordan West, are set to become the first players in program history to appear in three national tournaments. West had a tourney to remember last season, making a buzzer-beating layup in the first round and scoring 32 in the second — an all-time tournament high for the Raiders.
• At 13.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists, Spear is one of three players in the tournament who averaged at least 10-6-5 this season.
• Ben DeSaulnier led the Raiders in scoring at 18 points per game. The sophomore came into last year's tournament averaging 9.5.
• West has averaged 18.6 points in eight postseason games over the last two years. He comes into the week averaging 15.8 points and 5.9 rebounds on the season and ranks 11th in program history with 1,375 career points.
• On the national leaderboard, SOU ranks second in assists per game (19.5), seventh in field-goal percentage (49.4) and 20th in 3-point percentage (37.8).
About Mount Mercy: The Mustangs are unique for their depth; 20 different players have made appearances for them this season and 12 have averaged over 10 minutes and appeared in at least 20 games… Alex Houston, a 6-foot-5 senior forward, leads the team with averages of 15 points and 5.6 rebounds, but six others are averaging at least eight points. Their 88.3 points per game rank 10th in the NAIA and their 9.1 steals rank 11th… Ben Struss is 39 of 92 from 3-point range, making him their only regular shooting at least 35 percent from downtown. (Four of SOU's top-six in minutes shoot at least 35 percent from 3-point range.)… The Raiders have recently struggled against opposing posts — the last four centers they've faced have averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds — but no one in the MMU starting lineup stands taller than 6-5.