The Southern Oregon University men's basketball team comes into the season with fresh faces and high hopes.

The Southern Oregon University men's basketball team comes into the season with fresh faces and high hopes. Although picked to finish last in the Cascade Conference in a preseason coaches poll, the Raiders' success so far gives reason for optimism.

The Raiders (6-2) ran the gauntlet earlier this season and emerged with bolstered confidence and surprising defensive presence. In its second game SOU traveled to Spokane to take on Division I powerhouse Gonzaga. Although SOU lost 90-58, the Raiders walked away with little to fear. Freshmen sensation Kyle Tedder poured in 20 points and the Raiders forced 17 turnovers against the toughest opponent they will face all season.

"(The Gonzaga game) was a great learning experience," said SOU head coach Brian McDermott, whose team open league play at Concordia on Friday. "For no other reason than we learned we can play very well. "…We played against (Gonzaga) very well for certain stretches and that really gave us a lot of confidence."

The NAIA it seems has little to offer, in terms of presence and pressure, by comparison.

In the final game of the Flagship Inn Invitational the Raiders dropped a heartbreaking 56-57 decision to NAIA Division I Fresno Pacific (Calif.). Although the loss stung, there was consolation in defeat. The Sunbirds barely escaped the Raiders a night after beating Southern's in-state rivals, and preseason pick to win the Cascade Conference, Oregon Tech 70-62.

As conference play sets to tip-off for the Raiders this weekend in Portland, Southern Oregon hopes their potent blend of old and new surprises a few teams along the way.

The main reason Southern Oregon was picked to finish last is the lack of information about the team, said McDermott. It's harder for the schools to really track other teams and their progression.

"The whole league experienced a lot of changeover this off season," he said. "I don't think anyone knows our starting five were basically a part of our program. With guys coming off redshirts and little known recruits, they really don't have the evidence to predict accurately. A lot of this is based on how we did last year and what they guess will continue."

SOU is hoping a few of its undiscovered gems will shine brightly in conference play.

Freshmen guards Tedder and Jeff Bush have proven more than capable. Tedder currently leads the Raiders in scoring, averaging 14.1 points per game. Bush, although slowed by a nagging injury, is growing into the role of college basketball player.

Perhaps the biggest impact has been junior college transfer Jordan Highland. The Linn-Benton CC (Corvallis) product has had an immediate scoring and rebounding impact for the team. Highland is the second leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 13.9 points and 5 rebounds.

For SOU to continue its early success it will have to lean heavily on its team chemistry. That's something that the Raiders were not able to do in recent years.

"It starts with them liking each other a lot," McDermott said. "(My players) have a sense of purpose. We haven't been good for a couple years and they want to change that. They like each other and enjoy playing together and that is really as good as we can hope. We feel like we've recruited the right guys for that. Our chemistry will be one of our strengths this year and the last year or two it's been a real weakness."

That's not the only area in which the Raiders have improved, according to McDermott.

"Our leadership is way better than it has been," he said. "Our seniors are doing a good job, but our underclassmen are really holding us accountable. As a rule this group does that more than the last four or five years. They expect a lot out of each other and they hold each other to that standard."