Young Squad Builds for Future Success

Going into the 2005-06 season, head coach Greg Kampe and his staff knew that experience would be a key to the season. When the ball was tipped in November to start the year, Oakland’s most experienced players on the roster were three sophomores that had seen action in every game as freshmen. The only team in the Mid-Continent Conference with no seniors on its roster, the lack of overall experience seemed to hinder the team’s ability to put together and as a result the Golden Grizzlies finished the season 11-18 overall and 6-10 in the conference. Still, in a season of ups and downs, there were some shining moments and the experience that was gained by the young squad will be one of its strengths as it heads into the 2006-07 season.

With all of the new faces on the roster, Oakland knew that the beginning of the season would be a challenge and that some of those new faces would have to step up right away in order for the team to be successful. One of those faces that did step up right away was junior guard Calvin Wooten, a Detroit native that transferred into the program from Rutgers. Expected to provide some punch to the OU offense, he showed his ability to do just that in the first game of the season. Playing in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Florida to start things off, Wooten poured in 39 points in the opening game against Albany, tying the school record with nine three-point shots. The Danes, however, were just as hot from the field, hitting 13 of 19 treys on their way to a 90-73 win.

The opening loss to Albany did not get the Golden Grizzlies down, however, as the team bounced back the following day to defeat St. Peter’s, 72-69, coming back from 11 points down with 12 minutes to play to pick up the win. Wooten again led the way with 22 points while the defense held Keydren Clark, the two-time defending NCAA scoring champion, to 4-of-22 shooting in the victory. Wooten’s opening week efforts earned him Mid-Con Player of the Week honors and a place among the national scoring leaders, a group he would remain a part of all season.

Buoyed by the comeback win over St. Peter’s, the Golden Grizzlies with confidence for the rest of the month, reeling off three straight wins to finish November with a 4-1 record, a best for the program since joining the Division I ranks. OU opened its home schedule with a win over Notre Dame College and followed that with a solid, 77-53, victory over Duquesne of the Atlantic 10. Another of the new Golden Grizzlies stepped up to the front in that win, with freshman Derick Nelson putting in 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. His solid play at the beginning of the season earned him starts in all but four games, making him the only member of the freshman class to become a member of the starting five for OU.

Oakland closed out the month with another come-from-behind win, this time picking up the first road win of the season with a 76-66 victory at Bowling Green. Wooten again led the way with 22 points as the Golden Grizzlies made it two in a row over the Falcons of the Mid-American Conference.

Perhaps the most challenging stretch of the non-conference schedule was up next for Oakland, with three of the next four opponents winding up qualifying for post-season play. The first two games of the stretch were at home, with Miami (Ohio) first up for OU followed by Saint Louis. The Golden Grizzly offense struggled in the two games, shooting less than 40 percent in each as the Redhawks and Bilikins both scored wins over OU.

Oakland next faced a challenging road trip to Milwaukee for games against eventual NCAA Tournament teams from Marquette and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Another important aspect to the trip was the fact that two players that had transferred to OU a year before would now be eligible, Vova Severovas and Rick Billings. At Marquette the Golden Grizzlies took an early seven-point lead before the Golden Eagles came back to go up by 16 early in the second half. OU staged a rally that tied the game with 14 minutes left, but OU could not quite take the lead as the Golden Eagles took the win. Two nights later at UWM, the game proved to be the same, as the OU took an early lead only to see the Panthers come back to get the win.  

Oakland regrouped with a 90-74 win over Spring Arbor, getting 24 points from Severovas in his best outing to that point. Billings added 13 points in the victory, as both players started to show the form that had both players in the starting lineup for the remained of the season.  

Playing at Toledo for the third game against a MAC opponent after Christmas, Oakland played some tenacious defense against the Rockets, holding them without a three-point field goal for the entire game. OU held a slim lead throughout most of the contest, but in the end it was the Rockets that held off OU down the stretch for a 64-61 win.  

That loss started a tough stretch for Oakland that saw the Golden Grizzlies drop six of seven, with four of the losses by three points or less. After dropping games at Missouri and Valparaiso, the Golden Grizzlies hosted IUPUI in its first conference home contest. OU got 26 points from Severovas and 20 more from Wooten, leading all the way until the final minute when Jaguars escaped with an 82-81 win.

Oakland broke out of its slump with a convincing 89-76 win over Chicago State in its next outing, placing all five starters in double figures with Wooten leading the pack with 28. Close losses again came back to haunt OU, however, in the next two outings. The Golden Grizzlies fell by three points to Southern Utah and then dropped a two-point decision at UMKC, a game that saw the Golden Grizzlies stage a comeback from 22 down at the half that fell just short. 
Led by 55 percent shooting and 19 points from Wooten, Oakland rebounded in its next game at Western Illinois, holding off the Leathernecks down the stretch to take a 76-64 win. The Golden Grizzlies could not build on the momentum of that victory, however, dropping a pair of decisions to Oral Roberts and Centenary in the next two games, setting up what proved to be one of the season highs against Valparaiso at home.

A nemesis for Oakland since joining the Mid-Con, Valparaiso always seemed to have an answer against the Golden Grizzlies. This time it was OU that had the answer in the person of Wooten, as the guard took the team on his back and carried the Golden Grizzlies to a 95-89 win. Wooten scored a season-high 40 points against the Crusaders, making him the only player in the league to reach 40 points all season. The win was so significant; it received notice in the NCAA Tournament game program at the end of the season as one of the top moments in all of college basketball.

The win over Valpo carried over into the next game as the Golden Grizzlies brought down Western Illinois in a close battle, 68-64. Billings’ 17 points led the way in a game that was tied 11 times as OU pulled away in the final two minutes to claim the victory.

Oakland could not turn the back-to-back wins into anything more; however, as the Golden Grizzlies saw their next three opponents all get hot from three-point range. The result left OU facing its final three regular season games, all on the road, looking for some wins to build some momentum for the upcoming Mid-Con Tournament.  

It did not take long for Oakland to respond to the challenge, as the Golden Grizzlies opened up the final stretch of the season by avenging their earlier loss to Centenary with an 87-76 victory in Shreveport. Brandon Cassise came off the bench to shake off a season-long shooting slump with 21 points, hitting four three pointers and all nine of his free throw attempts. Oakland continued its strong late-season play in its next outing, holding off Southern Utah, 78-75, behind 25 points from Severovas and 23 from Wooten.

Playing the final regular season game at Chicago State, Oakland was again victimized by three-point shooting, as the Cougars hit 14 on their way to a 91-80 win. The loss put Oakland in the Mid-Con Tournament as the No. 7 seed, the same position it was in the year before when it swept through the tournament to claim the title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately for Oakland, the magic did not happen a second time in Tulsa. Playing second-seeded IUPUI, the Golden Grizzlies trailed by just four at the half, but the Jaguars used an early second half spurt that OU could not match and IUPUI went on to advance with a 69-63 win.

While the season did not end to the satisfaction of all, there are plenty of signs that the Golden Grizzlies could be a team to contend with in the Mid-Con race for 2006-07. Wooten finished the season leading the team with his 19.2 scoring average, a mark that was fourth in the Mid-Con and among the top-50 in the nation. He also set a new school record with his 95 three-pointers and led the Mid-Con in treys per game with his 3.39 average, another mark that ranked him among the national leaders. With his impressive Oakland debut, Wooten was chosen as the Mid-Con Newcomer of the Year, becoming the third Golden Grizzly in the last six years to win that honor. He was also named second team All-Mid-Con.

Severovas’ strong play down the stretch also earned him All-Mid-Con honors with his selection to the honorable mention team. He led the league in field goal percentage with his .594 average, a mark that was among the top-20 in the NCAA. Second in scoring with a 14.9 average, he also led the squad in rebounding with his 6.7 average.

While the team’s won-loss record was not what the team was looking for at the start of the season, Oakland’s young squad did show that it could compete with some of the top teams in the nation in 2005-06. The young squad certainly had its ups and downs during the season, but a team that started the season as young and inexperienced, finished the season as experienced veterans. Building on the lessons learned in the ’06 season will be one of the strengths that the 2006-07 team will be able to start the season with. With all of its starters and depth scheduled to return, Oakland will have something no other Mid-Con team can match at the start of the season; experience.

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