(This is a complete transcript of the ESPN/Blue Ribbon preview)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Oh, to have the moment back. If only Pittsburgh's Gary McGhee hadn't accidentally elbowed Oakland star Derick Nelson in the head, opening a gash and wounding the Golden Grizzlies' hopes in the NCAA Tournament.
Longtime coach Greg Kampe had the Panthers right where he wanted them. Sort of. The game was close to home, in Milwaukee. Plenty of Oakland fans found tickets to the Bradley Center.
For the first 13 minutes, the Golden Grizzlies gave their fans plenty to cheer about. Oakland held a five-point advantage just before Nelson's injury.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Nelson fell to the court after getting hit hard. He needed six stitches above his eye and later returned to the game, but the damage had been done. Oakland's hopes for an upset rested, at least partly, on its senior leader.
"It definitely changed the whole game," Kampe said. "We just stopped guarding. When he went out, we were like, 'Well, OK, we can't win.' "
The Panthers had 13 points at the time of the injury. They scored 76 more in the final 27 minutes of a 23-point win.
"After going back and looking at it, it made me angry," Kampe said.
Of course, Oakland had other reasons to be angry. Like drawing a No. 14 seed and being forced to play Pitt in the first round. The Golden Grizzlies won 20 of their final 21 games going into the tournament, had a solid RPI (53) and thought they deserved a better placement.
But the NCAA Tournament is ancient history. Kampe's solution now: Get back to the NCAA Tournament and give it another try. And watch out for flying elbows.
While Nelson is gone, the best player in the Summit returns to Oakland: 6-11 senior center Keith Benson (17.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg). The league MVP showed he could play with the big guys, scoring 28 points and grabbing nine rebounds against Pitt.
It wasn't the first time Benson had put up numbers against the nation's elite. In an earlier game against No. 1 Kansas, Benson scored 20 points to Jayhawks star Cole Aldrich's four. Benson blocked Aldrich's first two shots.
"We think, if he has a great year, he could be a lottery pick," Kampe said.
Kampe isn't going to ask Benson to make any changes in his game.
"I want him to repeat what he did last year," Kampe said. "We're going to feed him the ball and he's going to get fouled a lot."
Benson has some help, starting with 6-2 senior guard Larry Wright (11.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg).
"We need a higher three-point field goal percentage [.333, 54-of-162] from him," Kampe said. "We see a lot of goofy defenses because of Benson. The guys they leave to double down have to step up and make shots, especially open three-point shots. He was inconsistent with it. Everything else about his game, I love."
The other starter inside will be 6-9 senior Will Hudson (6.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg).
"Next year after the season's over, when everyone's talking about losing Benson, I'm going to be saying 'Yeah, but the guy we really have to replace is Hudson,' " Kampe said. "He does all the little dirty work. He's not as efficient offensively as we would like him to be. He'll get better this year."
Ledrick Eackles (6.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg) will move into the starting lineup. The 6-1 sophomore is the son of former NBA standout Ladell Eackles.
"He was inconsistent as most freshmen are," Kampe said. "But when he was good, he was really good. He was great against Pittsburgh. He single-handedly almost got us back into the game. I expect him to have a really good year."
UMKC transfer Reggie Hamilton, a 5-11 junior, will take over at point guard for the prolific Johnathon Jones, who passed for 224 assists last season. His average of 6.4 assists per game was fourth in the nation.
"[Hamilton is] at the same talent level as Johnathon Jones," Kampe said. Hamilton was leading UMKC in assists when he left the program in late January 2009. His career high in assists (nine) came against his future teammates in 2008.
It might take two players to replace Nelson. One contender, 6-3 junior guard Blake Cushingberry (4.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg) is a talented shooter. Another contender, 6-3 sophomore Drew Valentine (1.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg) got limited minutes in 2009-10.
"I really like him," Kampe said. "I think he's got a chance to be an outstanding player in our league."
Travis Bader, a 6-3 freshman guard, will get quality minutes after redshirting last season.
"He's a knockdown shooter," Kampe said. Bader attended the same Michigan high school (Okemos) as Johnathon Jones. Bader's father served as director of basketball operations at Michigan State for eight seasons.
When he first arrived on campus, Bader weighed 160 pounds. He's now in the 180s and much better prepared to handle the grind of a college basketball season.
"He's had a very productive redshirt year," Kampe said.
There's a 7-footer backing up Benson at center, junior Ilija Milutinovic (1.9 ppg, 1.2 rpg).
"He doesn't get a lot of minutes because I'm not going to take Benson out much," Kampe said. "He's a banger. He can make a jump shot. He's at the point in his career that he needs to earn more of those backup minutes."
Another returnee expected to get important time is 6-7 junior guard Drew Maynard (4.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg). He started seven games last season.
Oakland brought in some size in its freshman class. Corey Peters is a 6-10, 243-pounder from Eisenhower High School in Utica, Mich. He's got post-up skills and also a mid-range face-up game. Kyle Sikora, a 7-0, 231-pound center from Florida Christian in Key Largo, Fla., is a disruptive defensive player who once blocked 16 shots in a game.
Ryan Bass, a 5-10 guard from Dunbar High School in Dayton, Ohio, is an athletic, scoring point.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
BENCH/DEPTH : C+
FRONTCOURT : A
INTANGIBLES : A
It won't be easy for Oakland to replace Nelson and Jones, who was fourth in Division I in assists.
But with Benson back, the Golden Grizzlies have to be considered the Summit favorites, both for the regular-season title and in the league tournament. They might not go 17-1 again, but 14-15 wins in the conference seem likely.
Out of conference, Kampe has compiled his usual string of behemoths. This year's list includes games against Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, Michigan, West Virginia and Tennessee. The Michigan State game is at the Palace of Auburn Hills and all of the other games are on the road.
The same kind of schedule in 2009-10 didn't seem to bother the Golden Grizzlies. Kampe likes the competition and the school likes the paydays.
"There's a whole handful of reasons that we do it," Kampe said. "No. 1 is it really helps us in recruiting. We want to get a level of kid who is almost at that level. And these kids want to believe they should be there.
"From a coaching standpoint, you learn where you are bad against those teams. If you have a weakness, those teams pounce on it. It really helps me get ready for our conference season."
Win one or two against the power conference schools and Oakland has a chance, should it win the Summit Tournament, to improve upon its NCAA seeding.
The 26 wins last season set a school record. Topping that might be a challenge. But getting close seems likely.
"The big thing is we want to be better," Kampe said. "Our whole focus is to get back there [to the NCAAs] and give ourselves a chance to win one. It's so hard to get there at our level."
Kampe continues to recruit, continues to build. The school is entering just its 12th season in Division I. Oakland needs three good days in early March to reach its third Division I NCAA Tournament. The guess here is that will happen.
Not that Kampe's team will take the Summit for granted. Oral Roberts brings back four starters. IUPUI beat the Golden Grizzlies last season.
"If we go 17-1 this year that is a real accomplishment," Kampe said. "We just want to win it and win our tournament."
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