Ready for the season
By PAUL KAMPE
Of The Oakland Press
ROCHESTER — The Oakland University men’s basketball team was pretty sure what it had last season when the Golden Grizzlies began their epic run to the conference championship and NCAA tournament. Things aren’t quite as certain this time around, as Oakland begins its season in Morgantown, W. Va., for a tip against the Mountaineers, a Final Four contender last season.
“We’re going to do go out there and find out how they expose us,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “We’ve practiced for quite a while now, we have a veteran team and we think we can do some things and we’re going to find out if we can do them against … nobody’s going to play defense better than West Virginia does. Bob Huggins’ teams have always been known for being great defensive teams.”
One of the biggest differences this season will be at the point guard position, where the Grizzlies are recovering from the graduation of four-year starter Johnathon Jones, the Summit League’s all-time assist leader. Larry Wright will be one of multiple Oakland guards distributing the ball this season, something he hasn’t been asked to do in his career.
“I’ve been getting very comfortable (handling the ball),” Wright said. “(Ryan) Bass has been picking me up at full court, making me handle (the ball). I’ve been taking tests and asking people about the point guard position about how I can get better.”
If the Grizzlies don’t figure out what ails them against West Virginia, they have several more opportunities before conference play begins in earnest. Kampe has once again lined up a top-tier non-conference schedule for Oakland, where it plays five of the preseason top 25 teams.
The Grizzlies “host” No. 2 Michigan State at The Palace Dec. 11 and play at No. 4 Ohio State Dec. 23. They also play at Purdue in the Chicago Invitational Challenge later this month. Their second game is Monday at reigning Mid-American Conference Tournament champion Ohio, which defeated Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year.
The Golden Grizzlies played Pittsburgh in the tournament last season, their second Big East opponent of the season following a bout with then-No. 5 Syracuse. The conference’s physical style of play can take some getting used to.
“It’s just a physical style with stronger, faster players,” said Oakland senior center Keith Benson, a potential first-round NBA draft pick.
The Golden Grizzlies won’t earn the respect of their top-notch opponents without first knocking one of them off, Benson added.
“(West Virginia) recognizes we have some talent on our team, but you don’t fully get the respect until you beat one of them,” he said. “We’re going to have to play a solid game and everybody has to play their part and be into their roles. We’re going to have to knock down some outside shots and get some good post play and just really play a solid game.”
The Grizzlies were recently ranked No. 8 in the preseason mid-major poll, the program’s highest ranking to date. They finished at No. 9 after a 17-1 conference record in 2009-10, which set the Summit League record for winning percentage.
“It’s great that we’re there, but the reality of it is, with the schedule we play, we probably won’t be there in a few weeks.” Kampe said. “We’re going to have to crawl back into it in a couple weeks like we did last year.”
Meanwhile, the Oakland women's team kicks off its season today at 7 p.m. at the University of Detroit, seeking to avenge the season-opening loss the Titans dealt them at home last season.
“There’s so much we still need to work on still,” Oakland women’s coach Beckie Francis said. “But this is just the first game. You can’t have everything in and perfect”
Francis is using the season opener as the same learning tool Kampe will for the men. But there’s more certainty on the women’s team, where they return potential all-league center Brittany Carnago, after she missed last season with a knee injury suffered in exhibition play.
Carnago is joined in the frontcourt by sophomore Bethany Watterworth (Lake Orion), who filled in admirably during Carnago’s absence, earning all-league second- and newcomer team honors.
The Golden Grizzlies rallied behind their freshman fill-in and star Melissa Jeltema, who now plays professionally in Germany, to finish second in the Summit League (14-4) during the regular season. Similar to last season, the Grizzlies are already seeing contributions from their younger players.
“So many people stepped up in so many positions that we were almost surprised,” senior Kirstie Malone said. “We had some freshmen step in and have some good minutes and our defense was definitely there (during exhibition play).
“It’s not like they’re freshmen. It’s really surprising because these girls are so mature. They’re at a whole ’nother level that it’s not even like they’re freshmen out there. They’ve been in state championships, they’ve been in big games and it’s like nothing to them to step into the college game.”
Also like the men, the women have a challenging schedule out of their conference, which includes hosting Penn State (Thursday) and Illinois.
“(We play) two tough Horizon League teams, then UIC (Illinois-Chicago) … and come right back with Penn State and then the MAC champion. It’s great. At least it’s not Kampe’s schedule,” Francis joked.
Paul Kampe covers Oakland University basketball for The Oakland Press. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and for OU hoops news, follow him on Twitter @PaulKampe.
Oakland men at West Virginia, 9 p.m. Friday, ESPN3.com, WDFN-AM (1130).
For another thorough preview, read Golden Grizzlies Gameplan.
In other news: Hartland guard Matt Poches and Ann Arbor Huron guard Dante Williams made their commitments to Oakland official on Thursday, signing National Letters of Intent.