November 29, 2001 11:00 pm

By Pat Perkins

Observer Staff Writer

The La Grande Tigers will find out a lot about themselves Saturday night against Pendleton.

The boys basketball team starts its preseason in the LHS gym at 7 p.m. against the Bucks, a team that has had only a handful of practices because of the football teams postseason success.

For La Grande, the game will set the tone for practices the year through.

The first game of the season is when you learn what you can do and what you need to work on, La Grande coach Aaron Mills said.

Pendleton will also be the first team to test a new Tiger lineup, one changed drastically because last years Greater Oregon League champions lost seven seniors, including all five starters.

Were really young, but the younger kids are talented. The kids that we have moved up are capable and confident, Mills said.

The Tigers have four seniors, but only two of them played on last years varsity: Tyler Lester, a 5-foot-10 point guard, and Greg Schuft, a 5-10 shooting guard.

Junior Seth Pennington, a 6-1 forward, is the other returner.

Seth may be our best player, Mills said. Pennington played on last years all-star team at the NBC camp. Hes gotten stronger and bigger.

The other two seniors, Tanner Mellinger and Steve Larson, were on the JV team a year ago. Mellinger was probably the JV teams best player, Mills said, and Larson, at 6-3, is a strong rebounder who runs the floor well.

Mellinger will start at the power- forward position, and Larson will split time with 6-1 junior Kyle Bomberger at the other power forward. Mills doesnt run a center offense because he doesnt have anyone who has the height.

The lack of significant height could present a problem, Mills acknowledges.

Are we going to be able to rebound? Are we going to be able to defend in the post? he asked. To that end, the team is working on defending post entry passes.

Toward the middle of the regular season well start to see success. They want to do it, but it doesnt happen all at once.

Mellingers backup will be 6-4 junior Skyler McDonald, another player who improved over the summer.

Three sophomores will backup the guards and small forward.

Aaron Nebeker will back up Lester at point. Mills likes his speed. He can get beat and catch the guy, the coach said.

Tyler Tucker will back up Schuft. In a summer tournament against large schools in Seattle, Tucker led the team in scoring several times. Hes not afraid, even if hes young, Mills said.

Kelly Moore backs up Pennington at small forward. Hes a good shooter, a good slasher, Mills said. They dont play like sophomores.

Last years team was more athletic than this years, Mills admits. A year ago, Tanner Abel could take over a game with his scoring and rebounding.

As a team were going to have to fill that void with two players, Mills said. Theyre not that athletic, but theyre strong and they work really hard. Theyre solid as far as their basketball knowledge. They work well together.