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SOU lands tough draw in opener at nationals

POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. — The Southern Oregon and Midland (Neb.) men's basketball teams already agree on one thing: Getting each other in the first round of the NAIA Division II Championships probably wasn't a perfect draw for anyone.

The 21st-ranked Raiders (24-9 overall) hoped that, by moving up two spots in the final coaches' poll, they'd avoid one of the hotter teams in the nation. They won't.

The 11th-ranked and 10th-seeded Warriors (26-7) thought that an overwhelming showing in the Great Plains Athletic Conference — they won at then-No. 3 Dakota Wesleyan (S.D.), 81-74, then smoked sixth-ranked Morningside (Iowa) on the road, 89-67 — plus the respect that comes with being last year's national runner-up might mean a bigger spike for their ranking. It didn't.

And so, SOU and Midland are bound for each other and an 11:45 a.m. PDT tipoff Thursday at Keeter Gymnasium on the campus of College of the Ozarks. The winner will play either seventh-seeded Bellevue (Neb.) (28-5) or 24th-ranked Grace (Ind.) (21-10) at 11:45 a.m. Friday.

SOU would play one game per day through the 32-team field if it were to continue winning up until Monday, which is an off-day before Tuesday's championship. Losers are eliminated.

"Our draw overall looks like some good matchups for us, but we gotta get by the first one," Raider head coach Brian McDermott said. "Midland is a fantastic offensive team with great balance."

Midland is in the middle of establishing itself as something of a tournament power, having not made its first appearance until 2013 and getting all the way to the quarterfinals. The Warriors went into last season's tourney as the No. 10 seed, grinding through three tightly-contested contests to the Final Four and then dismantling Robert Morris (Ill.) by 39 points.

The Warriors lost the 2014 title game to Indiana Wesleyan, 78-68. IWU has been ranked No. 1 all season and enters the tournament as the top seed.

The Raiders are familiar with the underdog role, having upset 14th-ranked Madonna (Mich.) in the 2013 first round, 83-66. Over the last two years, seeded teams have lost 17 of 32 first-round games.

That was SOU's first appearance since 2006, and this one marks the seventh in school history and the fifth in McDermott's 20 years.

SOU's deepest run was in 2005 — which was also the year the Raiders won their first-ever NAIA tournament game — when an Elite Eight appearance was stopped short of the Final Four in a last-second loss to Cedarville (Ohio).

Midland, under fourth-year coach Todd Eisner, went 15-5 during regular-season conference play to finish third and will ride a six-game win streak into the tourney.

The Warriors feature one of the most dynamic looks in the NAIA — one that includes the nation's top 3-point percentage (41.5); a seemingly ambidextrous 6-foot-7 sophomore post (Alex Starkel) who leads the team in scoring (15.6) on 58-percent accuracy and rebounding (5.5); and possibly the most explosive backcourt the Raiders will see all year, led by 5-7 senior Galen Gullie (12.1 points, 3.4 assists, 1.5 steals) and 6-2 senior Marcus Franklin (12.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists).

Starkel, Gullie and Franklin were all starters last year, too.

"They have great inside-out balance and are a heavy pick-and-roll team," McDermott said. "We'll try to give them some different looks, but they're giving teams a lot of trouble right now."

The Warriors rank No. 3 in the NAIA in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6), No. 4 in turnover margin (minus-4.3), 12th in field-goal percentage (49.1) and 14th in scoring (83.5).

Midland went 7-5 this season against teams in the 32-team field.

The Raiders pulled off two pivotal Cascade Conference tournament wins — 98-92 in double-overtime over Northwest Christian in the quarterfinals, and 81-66 against then-No. 15 Warner Pacific in the semis — to reach the CCC championship for the second time in three years. They lost to No. 4 College of Idaho, 86-79.

Eric Thompson, the team's leading scorer (19.4) and rebounder (7.5), became the program's first four-time All-CCC player. Jordan West (14.6 points, 5.7 rebounds) and Thompson have combined to average 40 points over SOU's last four games.

Tim Weber holds the keys to the operation, averaging 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds with an NAIA-best 8.2 assists per game and four triple-doubles.

SOU enters the tourney No. 3 in the NAIA in field-goal percentage (50.8) and No. 6 in assists (18.5).