Can Oakland Repeat Magic of 2005?

How do you define a dream season? Oakland’s 2004-05 campaign certainly comes close; the team finished in the middle of the pack in the Mid-Continent standings, shocked both the conference and the nation by winning the Mid-Con Tournament and then won a game in its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. How do you follow up a dream season? That will be the question surrounding the Oakland’s men’s basketball team as it prepares for 2005-06. The glow of the Golden Grizzlies postseason run will hang around the program for awhile, but when practice starts in October, it will be back to work and back to reality for head coach Greg Kampe and his squad.

One of only 10 Division I coaches who has been with his team for 21 or more seasons, Kampe starts his 22nd campaign in Rochester much as he did a year ago, with the challenge of building a team into a Mid-Con contender with a squad that will rely heavily on new faces. While Oakland will be riding the momentum of its late season success from March, when the team takes the court for the first time this season, fans will be looking at their programs closely, as only four players return from the 2005 Mid-Con championship squad.

Gone will be the bulk of the team’s scoring, rebounding and just about every other stat; not to mention the heart and sole of last season’s team in All-Mid-Con players Rawle Marshall and Cortney Scott. The pair was the top two in scoring, rebounding, and steals and will leave a large hole in the Oakland lineup. In addition the team lost its point guard, DeMarcus Ishmeal, and will have three staring positions to fill at the start of the season.

The good news in all of this is the Kampe and his staff should have all the tools in place to fill those holes and then some. The Golden Grizzlies return five players with OU playing experience and will have three transfer players that will be eligible this season that provide additional collegiate playing experience. In addition, one of Oakland’s strongest recruiting classes in years, one that has been ranked as high as 24th in the nation, will be on hand to add even more talent to the mix that Kampe has to work with.

Youth will once again be one of the hallmarks of Oakland’s basketball team in the 2005-06 season, with just one senior and three juniors on the roster. Last season’s freshman class stepped up in the same situation and proved to be invaluable assets to Oakland’s championship run. If this season’s crop of new faces can live up to their billing, Oakland could find itself in the thick of the Mid-Con race.

Options should abound for Oakland at every position this season, whereas last season the Golden Grizzlies were down to just a rotation of seven or eight players by the end of the year. For instance, at guard the Golden Grizzlies have seven names on the 2005-06 roster after finishing last season with just four.

After struggling with three-point shooting last year, a strength of the team this season could be its outside shooting, with a number of players on the roster coming in with the label of sharpshooter next to their names. Oakland does return its top three-point shooting threat in sophomore Brandon Cassise. As he gained experience last season his outside shooting became more consistent and by the end of the year he was Oakland’s primary scoring threat off the bench. During postseason play he hit big shot after big shot from beyond the arc and was a key component in the Golden Grizzly success, averaging over 10 points in OU’s five tournament games. His 8.3 scoring average is the top mark among the returning players and his 61 three-point shots led the team and were sixth in the Mid-Con, making him one of the top outside shooting threats retuning in the league.

Oakland will be looking to one of its transfer players, Calvin Wooten, to shoulder some of the scoring load for the upcoming season. A native of Detroit, he is returning home after spending two seasons at Rutgers and will have two seasons of eligibility with the Golden Grizzlies. After a solid freshman season with the Scarlet Knights that saw him average six points, a knee injury limited his playing time as a sophomore when he played in just 13 games. A graduate of Mackenzie High School, he was a first team all-state selection and a finalist for Mr. Basketball as a senior when he led the PSL in scoring with a 26.5 ppg average. After spending last season at OU and practicing with the team, he is fit and ready to step into an expected starting role this season.

Another transfer with scoring potential is Ricardo Billings. Not be eligible until December, he is the only senior on the squad and is another Detroit native who has come back home. The transfer from Ohio State played a season and half for the Buckeyes where he showed some flashes of potential against rugged Big 10 competition. He prepped at Rogers Academy where he was a four-year starter and the PSL Player of the Year in 2002. He averaged over 20 points as a junior and senior when he was also an all-city and all-state pick. His scoring potential and athletic ability should fit in nicely with Oakland’s up-tempo style of play.

The rest of Oakland’s guard play will have to come from the freshman class, including the key point guard position. The most heralded of the group are Keith MacKenzie and Erik Kangas. MacKenzie could be one of Oakland’s answers at the point after signing on with the Golden Grizzlies in April. A local product of Warren DeLaSalle High School, he was rated the top point guards in the state of Michigan last season and finished fourth in the voting for the Mr. Basketball award after averaging 23 points and 5.5 assists a game. A solid ball handler, he is also a strong shooter that could add another outside scoring threat to the Oakland arsenal. 

Speaking of an outside scoring threat, that is the moniker that Kangas will bring with him. A 6-4 wing player, he set a Michigan high school record for three-point shots made in the state tournament championship round – quarterfinals, semifinals and finals – as a junior at DeWitt High. He helped lead the Panthers to the state championship game that season when he averaged 23 points a game.

Adding depth to the guard position will be another pair of Michigan products, B-Jay Walker from Royal Oak Shrine High School and Ricky Biezski from nearby Notre Dame Prep.

Despite the loss of Scott, the post positions are where Oakland will return most of its experience. Patrick McCloskey is the team’s only returning starter in the post after turning himself into a starter towards the end of last season. By then he had developed into a solid player in the post for OU, finishing third on the team in rebounding and showing a nice shooting touch around the basket with his .509 shooting percentage. With a year of experience under his belt and his solid play in his first season he should provide the Golden Grizzlies with a lot of minutes in the 2005-06 season.

David Carson also had a solid season for Oakland as a freshman, developing into the team’s top reserve among the post players by the end of the season. He showed no hesitation last season in taking the shots that were given to him, showing some flashes of becoming a solid offensive and rebounding threat for OU. If he continues to develop at the same pace he did last season he should see his playing time increase as a sophomore.

Some good news for Oakland fans is the return of center Shawn Hopes. After deciding not to play last season, he has returned to the Golden Grizzly fold and will add an immediate, experienced presence down low. During his first two seasons with OU he showed the potential to evolve into one of the top “big men” in the league. After working with the team for most of last season he should be ready to step in and give Oakland the size at center that it lacked last season.

Adding more experience for Oakland at center is junior David Ritzema. A starter for the first six games last season; he is a solid shot blocker that is continuing to work hard on improving his game.

Coming to Oakland from Wright State, Vova Severovas will add yet another dimension to the Golden Grizzlies in the post when he becomes eligible in December. A starter during his freshman season with the Raiders, he had a solid first season there and will bring more size and rebounding skill to the OU front line. He also showed an ability to get to the free throw line while at Wright State and could add some more offensive punch to the post position as well. Another player from the Detroit area, he was named the best power forward in the state of Michigan after his senior season at Birmingham Groves High School.  

A pair of freshmen with plenty of potential round out the 2005-06 edition of the Golden Grizzly roster. Derick Nelson will bring a winning attitude with him when he joins the OU family, winning championships in each of the last two years. After winning a championship with Lansing Everett High School in 2004 and earning a first team all-state nod, he moved on to Bridgton Academy in Maine where he led that team to the New England Prep School title, scoring 24 points and pulling down 15 rebounds in the championship game. At 6-5, 215 lbs. he can play on the wing or in the post for Oakland could step into a large role right away.

Aaron Gardner was considered to be one of the top big men in the state of Indiana last season at Anderson’s Frankton High School. His team’s MVP for three straight years, he averaged 17 points and nine rebounds as a senior and figures to play a large role in the picture at center for Oakland in his first season in Rochester.

With another young team this season, Kampe has toned down the schedule a bit from a year ago when the non-conference portion was rated as the toughest in the nation and helped contribute to the Golden Grizzlies getting off to a tough start. Still, Oakland will face the likes of Florida, Missouri and Marquette on the road and will square off against no less than four Mid-American schools this season, a schedule that should prepare the squad for the rigors of Mid-Con play.

Can the Golden Grizzlies pull off another trip to the Big Dance? Only time will tell. Don’t let the numbers fool you; while OU will be a young team, there is still plenty of experience on the team with the transfers and the talent and depth of the squad is arguably better than a year ago. If Kampe can put the pieces together and the Golden Grizzlies can get the kind of first year contributions they did a year ago, expect Oakland to contend with the best of the Mid-Con and possibly put on the dancin’ shoes again.

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