The Southern Oregon University men's basketball team won't be playing in next week's Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament, but you wouldn't know it by watching the Raiders prepare for tonight's game against Corban.

With nothing left to play for but pride, coach Brian McDermott runs an all-business practice &

as if the team is gearing up for a postseason rally. Players take turns hustling up and down the length of the court.

It isn't for lack of effort that Southern Oregon (8-20, 4-14 CCC) has struggled through its worst season since 2002-03, when the Raiders finished 8-22. Seven active players are completing their first year at SOU, and numerous injuries have hampered the squad. It also didn't help that three players quit the team mid-season, including one of program's best young talents, sophomore post Jason Nunnemaker.

McDermott says his team has been making personnel adjustments practically on a weekly basis since around Thanksgiving, when the Raiders' record was 4-3 overall. The Raiders' 56-47 loss to Willamette University on Nov. 23 marked the beginning of a seven-game slide that lasted into the new year.

"We've gone through a lot," McDermott said. "We've had to adjust too much and we're not good enough to have to make all those adjustments at this point."

As the Raiders' second-to-last practice of the season continues, McDermott can be found feeding chest passes to cutting guards. He stops for a moment.

"Jump hook, work on the jump hook," he hollers to post players Ryon Pool and Dustin Vaughn at the other end of the court. Then back to feeding cutters.

Pool may have started the season catching passes from McDermott, but with the early loss of senior post Matt Pizzola and the devastating departure of Nunnemaker, 6-foot-5 Pool now spends the bulk of his time in the paint.

A first year Raider, Pool expected a strong showing from what he says is a talented team, but losing so much from an already raw group left the entire program scrambling.

"Its definitely affected the team," Pool said. "Not only just losing personnel but like psyche and everything. Its just been a really weird season. We've had a lot of family issues. Just guys having problems back home that they've had to deal with. I think its been a pretty hard season for everybody."

The practice moves into 5-on-5 play focusing on what they might see tonight. McDermott stops the action to correct sophomore Trenton Fraser's defensive positioning on junior Eli Thornton. McDermott guides the pair of point guards through each step of the situation and assures everyone is on the same page. Always looking to improve.

McDermott says the team he leads today scarcely resembles the one he envisioned in October and that his top eight guys are not the ones he would've predicted.

"Every year you start with a lot of optimism and think that you're going to be pretty good," McDermott said. "At least you have those hopes. I would say we're playing different than what I thought we would. We're playing a little bit different style and we're not as big and physical as I thought we'd be."

As practice begins to wrap up with some shooting, McDermott spends some one-on-one time with freshman Scott Tiefenthaler at the free throw line. McDermott demonstrates where the shot should be released. Always working to improve, the coach indicates that the freshman needs to tuck in his elbow a bit.

McDermott then walks to half court and stands with his hands on his hips, seemingly sizing up his Raiders as they work. With the loss of only one senior from this squad, preparation has already begun for next season.

The coach sees this season as a natural progression of a rebuilding team and believes they will get better with time.

"In this business, most teams are not able to reload in a year or two years," McDermott said. "It takes time. And we think that we've got some good players in the program, but we don't have enough and we don't have them old enough yet."

Saturday night's game against Concordia will mark the end of the line for the Raiders' leading scorer and lone senior, Matt Cowell. McDermott says he will miss coaching Cowell and is now faced with replacing a large piece of the Raider basketball puzzle.

"Matty, with the system that we're running, has turned into one of the best scorers in the league," McDermott said. "Whether you replace it with guys moving up or new guys, you've got to get that replaced at the very least. And I think we will."

Tonight's game with Corban and Saturday's senior night game versus Concordia tip off at 7:30 p.m. at McNeal Pavilion.

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.