ASHLAND — Southern Oregon University has a fresh look for its men’s basketball team, and it has a decidedly Medford flair for the first time in about 15 years.
In this young season, with only four games in the books, the Raiders have put the ball in the hands of sophomore point guard Tristen Holmes, with freshman forward Hunter Bradford and freshman guard Conor Carroll already playing prominent roles for head coach Brian McDermott.
Holmes starred at North Medford High until graduating in 2015, while Bradford and Carroll helped lead South Medford High to a state runner-up showing as seniors last March.
That trio is just part of an influx of young talent in Ashland, where the Raiders boast only one redshirt senior in Central Point’s Justin Martin and are led by juniors Ben DeSaulnier and Kenny Meyer. Overall, SOU carries eight freshmen on its 13-man roster.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one quite this young,” McDermott said of his team. “It’s crazy, even our ‘old’ guys who are juniors look like they’re 16.”
It’s been a decade since the Raiders have utilized as many local products on the hardcourt, and even longer since South Medford players suited up for SOU (James Wightman and Chad Paris in 2000-01).
Having to rely on so many newcomers was certainly not by design for McDermott, and neither was the boost in Medford recruiting. Some unexpected attrition and a desire to avoid reliance on a host of transfers set in motion the first part, and even the 21st-year head coach didn’t plan on the second.
“I really didn’t see it coming because I didn’t think we’d have a chance to recruit Hunter or Conor,” said McDermott.
However it came together, the early returns certainly are promising.
The 6-foot-2 Holmes has started every game for SOU (3-1) after limited action last season and is averaging 15 points, 5.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds in 33 minutes per game.
Bradford, at 6-7 and 225 pounds, started the first three games before spraining his knee against California Maritime. He still has averaged eight points, three rebounds and 2.3 assists in 17 minutes per game. Bradford is expected to return to the lineup in about two weeks.
The 6-4 Carroll has come off the bench as one of McDermott’s lead reserve players, averaging 8.8 points and three rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game. He has connected on 6 of 17 3-point attempts (35 percent) to help stretch the court for an SOU team that has already drained 32 3-pointers.
“We kind of all just came in hoping we could do what we could do to help and so far we’ve had pretty big roles, so it’s been a lot of fun,” said Bradford.
What’s even more fun is the fact that the best is yet to come for a team that has DeSaulnier (17.5 ppg) and Meyer (14.3 ppg) blossoming in their roles and 6-9 freshman Jordan Hunt (10.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and 6-6 freshman Tate Hoffman (7.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) also providing a spark.
“I didn’t know if we could compete with that many young guys but after four games and taking a look at it, I think we have a real chance to finish in the top third of our league,” said McDermott.
“We’ll find out for sure how good we are when we get into league,” added the coach, “but we’ve played some pretty good teams so far and they haven’t looked like freshmen. There’s never been any panic and they play the same way in games as they play in practice, and that’s a really good sign that they’re just not getting shook. That gives us some confidence that it will just kind of stay this way, but that first year in college gets to be kind of a long one, so we’ll see.”
McDermott said he’s been pleased with the adjustments made by Holmes heading into his sophomore campaign. Holmes has worked diligently on his shooting touch and leaping off of one foot, which has helped him draw more free throw opportunities and allows him to soar through traffic.
“I’ve just been so impressed with some of the changes Tristen has made that I just didn’t think could happen so quickly and they’ve happened,” said McDermott.
Holmes has also taken up a leadership role that has proved invaluable in setting an optimistic tone.
“I think our whole team is kind of out to prove that just because we’re young doesn’t mean we can’t win games and come out and compete every night,” said Holmes. “We’ve been together for a few months now and we all trust each other and have great team chemistry already. So we know when it comes down to it, we’re all going to do what’s best for the team to help us win games.”
With Bradford, it’s been easy to see why he was such a formidable force last year for the Panthers.
“It seems to me just a matter of being able to keep him out on the floor,” said McDermott. “He’s very physical and he’s explosive and he shoots the ball really well, and does it so quickly for a big. They’re just not going to have guys in our league that can guard him, especially as he gets older and figures things out a little better.”
With Carroll, McDermott knew he could play a key role for his team but still has been impressed with the sneaky way in which he gets things done.
“The very first time I saw him play I just thought, he gets it, he understands things,” said McDermott. “He’s also one of those guys you watch and then say, ‘Twelve points? Where did that come from?’ You don’t really notice it and he’s built a box score.”
“The one thing about Conor to me is he just never plays faster than he’s able,” he added. “Everything seems to be under control from him. It doesn’t change no matter what level he plays, it’s all just like he did in high school. That’s just him. And it doesn’t hurt when you can stroke it from 24 feet and get it off quick. That’s a nice piece to have.”
Bradford said he and Carroll often talked about how cool it would be to play college basketball together, but each still wound up making his own decision. It just so happened that meant SOU.
Having played with and against each other over the years has helped create an easier transition for all three Medford players, who keep the North-South ribbing to a minimum.
“We’ve gone back and forth with all the battles we’ve had the last few years but it’s all fun and games,” said Holmes. “Now we’re all on the same team and there’s no bad blood from past years or anything. We’re actually all really good friends now.”
Good friends who can see a bright future ahead at SOU.
“If we stick together, learn and keep growing and maybe add something here or there,” said Bradford, “I think we can really do something big here in the next couple years. We’ve got a solid core group and all play really good together, so I think we’ve got a really good chance of being competitive now and for years to come.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry