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Student of the Game

ASHLAND — Long before Tim Weber fine-tuned his ball-handling skills to meet the demands of small-college basketball, before he was named Southern Oregon Hybrid player of the year at Roseburg High School, even before he could come close to palming a basketball, he had already settled on two lifetime goals: He wanted to play ball in the NBA, and he wanted to become a teacher.

Only months away from earning a master’s degree in education from Southern Oregon University, Weber is close to crossing one of those off his list. The other, that isn’t going to happen. But that doesn’t mean that Weber hasn’t had a good run in the sport he’s loved since he first received a mini hoop at age 1.

Especially this season.

Following three years manning his role in relative obscurity, often taking a back seat to his more experienced and accomplished teammates, Weber has emerged this season as one of the most versatile, well-rounded players SOU has ever had and the transmission to Eric Thompson’s engine in the 19th-ranked Raiders’ finely tuned offensive machine.

Weber can do it all and mostly has during his stellar senior season. Heading into SOU’s final two Cascade Conference games — the Raiders host 16th-ranked Warner Pacific on Friday and 11th-ranked Concordia on Saturday — Weber leads the conference in assists per game (8.1), ranks in the top 15 in three other major categories (field-goal percentage, rebounds per game and minutes per game) and unofficially leads NAIA Division II basketball with four triple-doubles. Mirroring Weber’s uptick in production, SOU ranks first in the conference in field-goal percentage (.507) and third in points per game (78.9).

“I think it’s a combination of a couple things,” said Weber when asked to explain his breakout. “One is confidence. That’s been one of the things I’ve struggled with since high school and even younger than that. Now in my head I know I can actually do it. I don’t really play scared anymore. I just go out there and have as much fun as I can, and I’m out there for the love of basketball.

“I think the other piece is that my role on the team has changed. Last year we had the all-time 3-point shooter in school history (Kyle Tedder) and an All-American center (Thompson), so there wasn’t necessarily room for me to do this.”

Now that there is room, Weber has stretched out and shown his full potential, helping Southern Oregon scoot to within a few wins of securing what would be the program’s second national tournament berth in the last three years. The Raiders (22-6, 11-5 CCC) enter this weekend, easily their most important of the season, fourth in the conference standings, two games behind league-leading and third-ranked College of Idaho (13-3 CCC) and one game behind both Warner Pacific and Concordia (both 12-4). If the Raiders can muster a weekend sweep, they’ll finish no worse than tied for second, and in one of the nation’s top conferences that will probably be good enough to earn the team an at-large bid to nationals regardless of what happens in next week’s conference tournament. On the other hand, if the Raiders go 0-2 this weekend they may drop out of the top 25, in which case their national tourney hopes would most likely depend entirely upon winning the conference tournament, something the Raiders haven’t done since 2005.

Weber is a big reason the Raiders are in position to get back to Point Lookout, Mo., and if they pull it off it would add another impressive accomplishment to Weber’s long list.

As an unusually tall (6-foot-6) high school point guard at Roseburg High, Weber had obvious potential and was recruited by former SOU assistant coach Brant Minor, at the time an AAU coach in the Roseburg area. Weber was voted SOH player of the year and earned second-team all-state recognition as a senior at Roseburg and fielded offers from SOU, Western Oregon University, Linfield College and Willamette University. It came down to SOU and WOU — the only two state schools with education programs. Weber desperately wanted to follow in his mom’s footsteps and become a teacher, and in the end he decided SOU provided the best environment to make that happen.

The Raiders won out partly because Weber connected with the coaching staff and players and partly because SOU’s elementary education program was more in step with Weber’s philosophy. That may not be a deal-breaker for most, but for somebody like Weber, who spent his formative years hanging out at schools and around teachers, it mattered a great deal.

“Southern Oregon’s education department has a different outlook than a lot of colleges,” he said. “They’re very relationship-based, whereas most other colleges are theory-based.

“I found a home here and I’m super glad I ended up in this program.”

Thanks to Roseburg High’s college credit program and Weber’s foresight to take advantage of it he arrived in Ashland for the 2011-12 school year having already pocketed about 50 college credits. The jumpstart paid off when Weber managed to finish off his bachelor’s degree in three years, carrying a 3.7 GPA. He started working toward his master’s degree in the fall and has somehow pulled off an elaborate juggling act all winter, balancing SOU’s 30-game regular season schedule and countless practices with his job as a student teacher at Oak Grove Elementary in Medford.

It’s been difficult — scheduling conflicts twice have forced him to fly out of Medford and join the Raiders for road trips, and he’s often late for practice — but to Weber connecting with his third-grade students at Oak Grove has made it all worth it.

“It’s a really good mix,” he said, “because they’re old enough to be independent and think critically, but young enough to give me hugs. I’m just excited about the whole experience.”

Weber isn’t the only SOU player who’s balancing the masters in education program with basketball. Thompson, the CCC’s preseason player of the year who ranks third in the conference in scoring (19.2 points per game) and fourth in rebounding (7.7), has endured essentially the same grind as Weber, costing head coach Brian McDermott easily the most scheduling conflicts he’s had in 19 years at the school.

“I think they’ve handled it unbelievable well,” McDermott said.

Though Weber, who grew to 6-foot-8 after high school, was not completely unleashed until this season, it’s easy to see what drew the Raiders to the lanky guard from the beginning. He’s tall enough to see over any defense, can handle the ball against pressure and has tremendous court vision.

He flashed all of those attributes during SOU’s 67-58 win over Oregon Tech last Saturday, finishing with 15 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in 39 minutes, making all five of his field-goal attempts and all four of his free throws. The game seems to come easy to Weber. His size allows him to spot cutting teammates, and he anticipates passing lanes that don’t seem to be there until the ball reaches its destination unscathed.

“He’s a tough matchup,” McDermott said. “And the crazy thing with him is that most of his assists lead directly to layups. With most point guards, about half their assists come on kickouts that lead to jump shots. Tim’s are layups, because of what we do as a team and because he can see so much more. … We’re a cutting kind of team, and he’s the best passer in the country at finding cutters that are open.”

Take Saturday’s game. Early in the first half he took the ball near the top of the key, turned and fed Jordan West breaking to the hoop for an easy layin. SOU’s next possession was a virtual replay, with Weber hitting West for a reverse layup and a 12-10 Raider lead.

Weber can improvise, too. With about nine minutes to go in the first half SOU guard Joel Spear stole the ball near the Raider bench and quickly passed to Weber near midcourt. Without taking a dribble Weber, whose head is on a perpetual swivel, delivered a perfect touch pass ahead to a streaking Ben DeSaulnier, who converted a layup as he was being fouled for a three-point play.

Late in the game, moments after hitting two clutch free throws, Weber finished off another fastbreak with a no-look pass to West for another easy layup that all but clinched the game.

Weber said the big numbers he’s putting up this season were mostly earned over the past few summers, when he used any open gym he could find in Roseburg to work on every aspect of his game, especially his ball-handling and his jump shot.

“We all go back home,” Weber said, “so really it’s up to you to do it. So usually that involves getting in the gym and shooting, lifting, playing any pickup games you can find. So last summer I’d take gym keys from wherever, like local elementary schools, and be in there from 9 to 10 at night. If you can get a hoop I can shoot at it.”

The finished product is a player whose skill set and confidence is at an all-time high. When Weber arrived at SOU three years ago McDermott dreaded putting him in situations that required ball-handling against pressure defenses. Now, that’s one of Weber’s responsibilities.

“Any time we’re being pressed, he’s the guy that we go to,” McDermott said.

Which means this weekend, Weber will play a pivotal role in the Raiders’ playoff hopes. Last season SOU entered the final weekend of the regular season in an eerily similar situation and bombed horribly, losing badly at Warner Pacific and Concordia before dropping its CCC tournament opener at home to Northwest Christian and getting snubbed by the NAIA selection committee.

But this year’s Raiders, Weber believes, are a different, more free-flowing group that isn’t as prone to violent swings of emotion. That steadiness, he says, will serve them well down the stretch.

“Last year we were almost playing not to lose and there was so much pressure on us,” he said. “This year feels completely different. This year, we’re playing as a family and for each other, and it’s fun. A lot of the stress and urgency is gone because of that, because we know that if we go out there and lay it all on the line and lose then at least we’d know we put it all out there and I think we’d be OK with that.”

Although, he added, he’d be more OK with making it back to Sioux City, where he says the Raiders would be a tough out for anybody.

“The scary part about this team is that we’ve not reached close to our potential,” he said. “I think we can definitely do some damage. We have a really carefree group and a lot of teams that go to the national tournament are in awe. But not us. We’d have a blast and we would compete as hard as any other team. And if you compete like that, there’s no telling what you could do when you get there.”

Tim Weber has also been outstanding away from basketball — he's months away from earning a master’s degree in education from Southern Oregon University. MT FILE PHOTO
Southern Oregon University's Tim Weber leads the Cascade Conference in assists per game (8.1), ranks in the top 15 in three other major categories (field-goal percentage, rebounds per game and minutes per game) and unofficially leads NAIA Division II basketball with four triple-doubles. MT FILE PHOTO