The Southern Oregon men's basketball team opens the 2012-13 season with the lofty expectations that go along with being ranked in the NAIA Preseason Top 25 and having the Cascade Collegiate Conference Preseason Player of the Year.
Southern Oregon is No. 23 in the NAIA poll, marking the first time the Raiders have cracked the rankings since February of 2006. With honorable mention All-American Eric Thompson leading a strong corps of returners, the excitement going into this afternoon's season opener is justified.
"We have a very good group of guys coming back," SOU head coach Brian McDermott said. "We've got three of our top four scorers back and we've got our top rebounders back, so we're really excited about that."
The Raiders head to the Bay Area to begin the season with a 1 p.m. matchup against Pacific Union today, and a 4 p.m. game against Menlo on Saturday.
McDermott mentioned four top nonconference opponents that await SOU in the next several weeks, as the Raiders will travel to Florida next week to face No. 11 Davenport and No. 16 Embry-Riddle (Fla.). Southern Oregon will then host defending national champion Oregon Tech, ranked No. 2, in a Nov. 20 nonconference game, and NAIA Division I Lewis-Clark State will come to Ashland for the annual Flagship Inn Classic on Thanksgiving weekend.
Thompson set a Southern Oregon freshman scoring record with 587 points last season, when SOU finished with a 17-13 record. He returns for his sophomore year after averaging 19.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game as a freshman.
"Eric obviously is a very key part to our success; he's going to be one of the leading scorers and rebounders in our league," McDermott said. "I think probably the biggest thing about Eric right now is he has got a much better understanding and is much more calm about the game. He's much more comfortable, and that's probably not great news for the Cascade Conference because he's quite a bit better than he was last year."
Other returning starters for the Raiders include Jeff Bush and Kyle Tedder. Bush returns to the point guard position after leading SOU with 92 assists during his sophomore campaign, and McDermott believes he's taken a big step forward in the offseason.
"He's a bigger, stronger version of himself now, and he's much more confident," the SOU coach said of Bush. "He'll be our leader and he's one of our team captains. He'll get a chance to do some things that he didn't do so much the last couple of years as we get him down into the post and take advantage of his size."
As for Tedder, McDermott calls him "probably the most versatile of our guys. He's someone who can really get hot, and when he does he can carry a team for a while." Last season, Tedder started 23 games and ranked third on the team with 305 total points, including a team-high 49 3-pointers.
Terriel Thomas returns for his senior season after averaging 7.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last year. After he started 10 games last year, Thomas will go into this season slated as the first man off the bench for the Raiders.
"We feel very strongly about having somebody come off the bench that's going to deliver a whole bunch of energy and also can score some for us," McDermott said of Thomas' role.
Southern Oregon's top newcomer is expected to be Oregon State transfer David Sturner. The 6-foot-8 junior has "guard skills — he can pass the ball from the outside, he handles the ball very well and he shoots the 3 very well, which plays into what we're doing this year.
"David will be one of those guys who is going to have numbers in every stat column and is going to help us in a lot of different ways, and he's a wonderful teammate," McDermott added, comparing Sturner to graduated SOU All-American Jordan Highland.
McDermott also praised a pair of international recruits, with freshmen Jordan West and Joel Spear, both Australian imports, joining the team. The 6-foot-8 West will serve as one of SOU's backup post players, while Spear will back up Bush at the point guard position. While the SOU head coach mentioned that Spear will need to some time to grow with the Raiders, he praised his natural ability as a point guard.
"I really like his approach to the game and his understanding of the game," McDermott said. "He's had a lot of international experience, and I think that's helped him. He's not really scared by anything, and he's just really calm on the floor. He's a true point guard, always looking to get his teammates a shot first."
While the preseason accolades — Tedder and Sturner joined Thompson on the preseason all-conference team — reveal that the Raiders are getting some recognition both conference and nationwide, McDermott stresses the importance of not getting caught up in rankings set before the season starts.
"It means very little on the face of it, because nobody has played any games yet when that got picked," McDermott said. "But what it does say is that we've made some progress in rebuilding this thing the last couple years, and I think people are aware that we're on an upward swing as opposed to a downward one. Now it's up to our guys to get out there and prove that."
That all begins this weekend down in California. While McDermott acknowledges that Pacific Union and Menlo probably can't compare talent-wise to some of SOU's upcoming opponents, he says that the gameday atmosphere in both gyms will present a challenge. It will mark the first test for an up-and-coming SOU squad that hopes to prove it can compete with the top teams in the conference and NAIA.
"We're really excited," McDermott said. "We've got a tremendous group of young men. They've been working hard, they get along and like each other, I think they like their coaches, or at least they're listening to them a little bit. I think it should be a fun year, and we'll see if we can continue to climb."