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After 13-month wait, SOU men set to return to court

Southern Oregon University guard Tez Allen (20) is the Raiders' lone returning starter from a team that was 24-7 when the NAIA Division II national tournament was canceled last season. (Photo by Al Case / Ashland Daily Photo)

ASHLAND — It doesn’t take Brian McDermott long to figure out how many practices he’s run since the last time the Southern Oregon University men’s basketball team played a competitive game.

“Seventy-five,” McDermott said without hesitation. “Seventy-five practices.”

The Raiders’ longtime head coach has had to work up just as many practice plans under strict restrictions for much of the last year amidst the pandemic. But what this weekend will bring is something McDermott — and especially his players — have been waiting on for quite a while: an actual game.

Southern Oregon’s spring schedule gets underway in Klamath Falls against arch-rival Oregon Tech at 4 p.m. this afternoon, with the Raiders kicking off six weeks worth of games where McDermott and Co. hope to both shake off the rust and get some much-needed game experience under their belts.

“They’re very, very happy,” McDermott said of his players. “We had our first scrimmage without masks the other day, and when I told them to take their masks off, I thought they were going to run around the track a few times and then come back. It’s pretty cool.”

While it may not be the kind of schedule they were hoping for at the beginning of the school year, the Raiders are about to play games again — something they haven’t done in nearly 13 months.

The Raiders’ 12-game spring schedule will feature games against the Cascade Collegiate Conference’s other Oregon schools, as well as a visit from NCAA Division II Humboldt State. Games against CCC opponents will be played on back-to-back days to cut down on travel and potential exposure to COVID-19.

After their trip to Klamath Falls this weekend, the Raiders will play their next nine games at home, wrapping the spring slate with back-to-back games at Eastern Oregon.

“In watching the games that I’ve watched, there doesn’t seem to be very much of a homecourt advantage, so I think that part is gone a little bit,” said McDermott, adding that he can’t remember a time where SOU has had this much of its schedule be played at home. “But, boy, the thought of not traveling and that kind of travel that we do, that’s pretty cool.”

Just getting to this point has been a road full of twists and turns.

For much of the year away from competition, SOU couldn’t conduct full-contact practices due to restrictions put into place by the Oregon Health Authority. With restrictions still in place as the start of the reworked Cascade Conference schedule approached, SOU decided to opt out of the season in early December, instead hoping springtime would mean more favorable conditions.

Come late February, CCC teams in Oregon finally received clearance to resume all activities for high-contact sports, clearing the way for some semblance of a spring season to take place.

Due to restrictions in place as a result of Jackson County being at the extreme risk level at the time, McDermott gave his team much of the winter months off, with the team only returning to practice late in February.

With Jackson County being at the high risk level, SOU will continue with its no-spectator policy at home games.

“It’s been so weird because the conditioning has been quite a challenge,” McDermott said. “Ordinarily, at the beginning of a normal season you’d have 22 practices, but they’re coming off a summer of really hard conditioning. Here, we started practicing in late February, and they hadn’t done anything for three months, so the conditioning element has been very challenging. You can’t get it all back in a day or a week.”

Ranked No. 8 nationally when the remainder of the NAIA Division II national tournament was canceled in March 2020, SOU has just one starter back from the 2019-20 team that went 24-7 and advanced to the Round of 16.

That one starter, redshirt junior guard Tez Allen, has started 60 of a possible 61 games over the last two seasons. During the 2019-20 campaign, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Allen was one of the CCC’s top assist men while ranking just outside the top 10 in rebounds and steals.

McDermott envisions Allen’s role will be one the fourth-year junior is already used to when it comes to being one of the Raiders’ top leaders.

“He is a natural leader anyways,” McDermott said. “He was doing the leading as a freshman, so that part is not going to be a concern.”

The Raiders have plenty of size in the backcourt and frontcourt, with only three of the 11 players on their roster listed below 6-5. Allen could very well be one of the shorter players that McDermott uses in the starting lineup to begin the spring season, with 6-5 freshman Mason Whittaker, a Nevada native, likely to team with him in the backcourt.

South Medford grad Josh Washington will get his first chance to get consistent minutes in the starting lineup this spring. McDermott described Washington’s role as one of “a one-man fastbreak,” somebody who runs the floor and tries to make teams pay in transition.

“He runs so well that we’re looking for him to be a rim runner and just run past people and getting us some easy ones for us,” McDermott said of Washington, who started five games in the 2019-20 season.

North Medford grad Brad Allen will likely be another key piece off the bench for the Raiders after coming on strong at the end of the 2019-20 season. Allen, who shot 47 percent from the field last year, is being looked at as one of the Raiders’ top options off the bench.

For South alum and senior forward Hunter Bradford, it’s all about continuing to stay healthy this spring. Bradford made his return to the court last season and appeared in 27 games off the bench after missing the previous two years due to injury.

“All I want for him is to be healthy enough to play. That’s all I want for him,” McDermott said. “Brad Allen has come a long, long way. We’re a weird team in that we’re mainly 6-5, 6-6 guys, so our big guys will likely have to be some of our best shooters, and he’s definitely one of those guys.”

With so many new players adapting to new roles, and a trio of freshmen yet to play at the college level, simply getting on the court is a step in the right direction.

SOU will be facing an OIT team that is 3-1 after splitting a pair of games against Corban last weekend.

When it comes to the next six weeks, the evaluation period will be continuous.

And when compared to what they’ve had to deal with for much of the last year, that’s something the Raiders will most definitely take.

“We’re just going to be looking at them, evaluating them and looking at what we need for next fall,” McDermott said. “It will give us a better idea of who we are, what we are and what we need.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.