April 18, 2011
At media day back in October, head coach Greg Kampe said that he felt his team had a chance to be better than the 2009-10 squad that won a school record 26 games, and broke Summit League records in wins (17-1) and winning percentage (.944). Quite a statement to make, but if anyone was going to make such a bold claim, it would be the 27-year veteran coach.
"I just felt like we had all the pieces to make a run at the NCAA tournament," said Kampe. "Which is crazy when you see players like Derick Nelson and Johnathon Jones leave, but we had a strong senior class coming back and some really talented newcomers."
And once again, Kampe was proven right. The Golden Grizzlies set a new league record with 20 consecutive league wins and matched last season's 17-1 record in league play. OU finished 22-9 in the regular season, four of those losses coming to nationally-ranked teams, and once again dominated The Summit League tournament, holding 20-point leads in all three games and cruised to its second straight league championship.
"I was really nervous because we had such a tremendous season and it would mean nothing if we lost a game at the conference tournament," said Kampe who was named Summit League Coach of the Year for the second straight year and fifth time overall. fd"The players were not and really played well."
This time around, the NCAA committee was looking at an Oakland squad that had an even more impressive resume than the season before when the Golden Grizzlies were given a 14 seed and faced No. 3 seed Pittsburgh. OU held a top-10 win over then-No. 7 Tennessee, 89-82, in Knoxville (Dec. 14) and a tough 1-point loss to then-No. 7 Michigan State, 77-76, at the Palace of Auburn Hills (Dec. 10).
Oakland faced a school record five nationally-ranked teams and eight teams that made the NCAA tournament. The committee rewarded the Golden Grizzlies with their highest seed at No. 13, but had to face former No. 1 and No. 3 seed Texas in Tulsa, Okla., just hours from the Longhorns' campus in Austin.
"That was a tough draw, but there is nothing you can do about it," said Kampe. "Rick Barnes (Texas head coach) said in his press conference that we would have finished in the top half of the Big 12 and that was a pretty good compliment. It shows how talented coaches across the country thought we were."
Oakland pushed Texas all the way to the end in a hard-fought 85-81 defeat as the Golden Grizzlies were unable to pull off the upset. Texas coach Rick Barnes said in the postgame press conference that Oakland was given a raw deal by the tournament committee and were better than a 13 seed.
"I'm telling you, we just won a game against an outstanding team," said Barnes. "When you have the kind of year they have and you go out and play the non-league schedule that they play, because a lot of teams won't do that, and then you make the run that you make through your league, he's (Greg Kampe) been there a long time. He's a great coach and he's got great respect.
"But when that came up everybody looks at seeds and I wasn't going to talk about where we were because I'm not concerned about that. But I did tell our coaches if anybody got a bad deal in this deal it was Oakland."
The Golden Grizzlies scored 81 points on a Texas team that was only allowing just over 61 points per game. OU hung around, despite shooting just 24 percent (7-for-29) from beyond the arc.
"We played a team that was talented enough to win a national championship," said Kampe. "We did everything we thought we could do. We didn't make enough shots in the end."
The main reason Oakland was able to repeat as Summit League regular season and tournament champions was senior center Keith Benson. The Farmington Hills, Mich., native averaged a double-double with 17.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and earned Associated Press All-America honorable mention honors for the second straight season.
He was named The Summit League Player of the Year for the second consecutive season and earned Defensive Player of the Year accolades after setting a new all-time league record with 371 blocked shots. He became the first player in league history to earn both those awards in the same season.
"Kito is one of the most dominant players in league history," said Kampe. "He is a pro and changed the game on both ends of the floor. He is the best player that I have ever coached."
Benson also broke the school record with 20 double-doubles and finished his career with a school record 49. He was selected to the CollegeInsider.com All-America team and was on the Naismith Trophy watch list which is given to the top collegiate player in the country.
Joining Benson in the frontcourt was senior Will Hudson who finished his career with his finest season yet. Hudson, a native of Madison, Wis., doubled his scoring output from six to almost 13 points per game, and grabbed a career-high 7.6 rebounds per game. He broke the single-season school record with 133 offensive rebounds and finished his career with an all-time record 345 offensive boards. He also shot 65 percent from the floor which ranked second in The Summit League, earning All-Summit League second team honors.
"Will was the most improved player in the country in my opinion," said Kampe. "If you ask any coach in our league, they would tell you the same thing. He worked very hard and had a great season for us. I have gotten quite a few calls from pro scouts about his ability and know he will also get an opportunity to play professional basketball in the NBA or overseas."
Oakland finished at 25-10, reaching 20 or more wins for the third consecutive season. The 25 wins is second only to the 26 in 2009-10 and the Golden Grizzlies have won a Summit League-best 91 games over the last four seasons, making Benson and Hudson the winningest players in school history. OU has won 79 percent of its league games over the last five seasons and boast a nation's-best 49-2 league record over its last 51 conference games.
"One of the highlights for me this season is the fact that we dominated the league tournament the way we did by holding 20-point leads in all three games," said Kampe. "There was so much pressure on us for the season we had and I think I was the only one that felt it, because our kids really went out there and played with a lot of confidence.
"The biggest accomplishment for me is the fact that we are the winningest team amongst Michigan Division I schools over the last five years, because that demonstrates a high level of consistency. We have won close to 80 percent of our league games over that time frame, and Michigan State, who has been one of the top programs in the country, has won 68 percent of its games. That is saying something."
Oakland reached its highest-ever ranking in the Mid-Major Poll at No. 5, before ending the season at No. 8. The Golden Grizzlies remained in the top 10 over the final two months of the season and have gone 50-5 versus Mid-Major teams over the last two seasons. The Grizzlies also boast the nation's third-longest home league winning streak at 22 straight.
"Our home crowds have really become a force for us inside the O'rena," said Kampe. "We did not play as well as we would have liked in some of our final home games, but our fans willed us to victory and have established themselves as the top fan base in The Summit League."
The cast of talented players grew this season with junior transfer Reggie Hamilton, first-year player Travis Bader and returning senior Larry Wright. Hamilton was named All-Summit League first team after averaging just over 17 points per game and dishing out 187 assists, second-best in the league and fourth-best in the OU Division I era.
"It shows how smart I am because I tried to turn Larry in to a point guard and wanted Reggie to be our scorer at the No. 2 position," said Kampe. "But Larry got hurt and Reggie took over the point guard position and really kept us running at a high level. We scored close to 90 points a game in league play, which is the best I have ever seen."
Wright became the Sixth Man of the Year in The Summit League and Bader was selected to the All-Newcomer Team after finishing ninth in the country with a .443 three-point field goal percentage. He also finished fourth in the school record book with 94 3-pointers made.
"We were the only Division I school to offer Travis a scholarship and knew he could really shoot," said Kampe. "We thought he would play five to six minutes a game, but he was given an opportunity to start in our opener at West Virginia, a team that made the Final Four the year before, and scored 10 quick points early and never looked back. The league's all-time three-point shooter, Erik Kangas, only made 17 his freshman year and Travis made 94. That tells you something about the type of season he had.
"Larry did everything we asked him to do. I was happy to see him fight through some tough injuries and produce the type of year we needed out of him to win another championship."
The Golden Grizzlies' run-and-gun offense finished second in the country at 86 points per game and third in the country with a.457 field goal percentage. Oakland put those numbers up despite playing the 12th-toughest non-conference schedule.
"If you look at the teams we played this year and see what we were able to do, you cannot help but realize how gifted these kids were," said Kampe. "We were not able to accomplish one of our goals to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, but we had a great season, winning back-to-back league titles and beat a top-10 team on the road."
Three more banners will go up inside the O'rena this spring for Summit League regular season and tournament titles, an NCAA tournament banner and another 20-win season added to the already hanging banner. The dominance Oakland has displayed over the last three years has been unreached by any other Summit League school.
"We talk about consistency all the time here at Oakland University, and we have been able to maintain that in this program," said Kampe. "If we are able to win another championship next year, that would go even farther because we have had some very talented players leave our program in Erik Kangas, Johnathon Jones, Derick Nelson, Keith Benson, Will Hudson and Larry Wright."
The Golden Grizzlies' 34-2 league record over the last two years is tops in the country, ahead of powerhouse Kansas and Mid-Major power Utah State, who are both 29-3 during that time. Oakland finished No. 57 in the final NCAA Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings, ahead of everyone in the Atlantic Coast Conference with the exception of No. 4 Duke, No. 7 North Carolina and No. 42 Florida State.
Another GOLDEN season came to a close in mid-March. Nobody enjoys ending the season on a losing note, but only one team in the country can say they ended on a winning note. And that being said, Oakland was one of 68 schools that had a chance to compete in the NCAA tournament.
This season will go down as one of the finest in school history, but Coach Kampe and company will continue to fight for that next step in the program. Whether that is a Summit League THREE PEAT, an NCAA tournament second or third round win, or a national title, one thing is for certain, the Golden Grizzlies will continue to be a force in The Summit League.