More Summit opener prep
By PAUL KAMPE
Of The Oakland Press
ROCHESTER — Although they didn't tour after having a dominant season in the Summit League in 2009-10, the Oakland men's team has been living like rock stars so far this season — from the traveling aspect, that is.
The Golden Grizzlies open the conference season today (Thursday) in their home opener against Southern Utah at 7 p.m. after spending the first three weeks and six games on the road against some of the country's renowned teams, Oakland (3-3) begins its defense of the Summit crown.
“I'm excited about (playing at home) and I'm sure our players are,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “We've created such a great atmosphere here at the O'Rena over the last few years that we just have this Superman feeling when we come out here. We believe that we can play with anyone at any time in this building.”
The early tests included stops at Final Four contender West Virginia and at then-No. 14 Purdue, as well as a win over Mid-American Conference tournament champion Ohio, which upset Georgetown in last year's NCAA tournament.
Kampe said the first two home games of the season vs. the Thunderbirds and UMKC might be the two most important games of the year for Oakland, which has three matches against Big Ten opponents and upper-tier Summit teams still to play.
“You start your league at home and you have two games,” he said. “You have to win those games.”
“Southern Utah is an interesting team. They're a team that can beat us. … If we don't play our best, it could be a long, embarrassing night.”
The coach, in his 27th year, added he's not worried about his team suffering from complacency today (Thursday).
The banner recognizing the Grizzlies' accomplishments last season — a 17-1 conference season, conference tournament championship and an NCAA tournament appearance — have been snug against the ceiling of the O'Rena since the summer. There's no more time to think about what happened last year.
“We'll honor that team maybe in 10 or 15 years,” Kampe said. “They did their job and got to cut down the nets … if we ever win the NCAA championship, we might do some sort of (celebration). We're focused on this year. I don't want our players thinking about last year.”
The Grizzlies are returning from suburban Chicago, where they won their bracket of the Chicago Invitational Challenge. They most recently defeated Austin Peay State in overtime. The game was the last in an eight-day roadtrip, which Kampe says was a recipe for disaster.
“We played well enough to be in the game,” he said. “Reggie Hamilton made some shots for us early to keep us around and then Keith Benson just took over. (Benson) had an unbelievable stat line.”
Benson, the Grizzlies' 6-foot-11 senior center, is an NBA prospect. He finished the game with 22 points, 22 rebounds, six blocks and seven steals Saturday, good enough to earn him Summit League Player of the Week honors.
The Grizzlies have struggled to find consistency at the point guard position following the graduation of four-year starter Johnathon Jones, who now plays professionally in Europe.
“It's going to get better. It's not something you can just turn it over and say 'Here it is,' ” Kampe said.
“It'll work it's way out. Am I worried about it? No. But do I realize it's a liability right now? Yes. We're going to get better at it. We can't turn the ball over 18 times a game and win a championship. But we'll get there.”
Another concern has been the Grizzlies' defense against the 3-point shot. Opponents are averaging 38 percent shooting from long range against Oakland. Kampe recognized the criticism that figure draws to his team, but clarified the numbers could be misleading. Chief among his reasons is strength of schedule.
“We haven't been playing 'Little Sisters of the Poor.' These are some pretty good teams,” Kampe said.
The Grizzlies' defense is predicated around Benson, mid-major player of the year, who Kampe likes having near the basket to gobble up rebounds, as he's been known to do with much success. As a team, Oakland is averaging six more rebounds than opponents thus far.
“We're going to give up some 3s, that's just the way it is,” Kampe said, noting the team's current field-goal defense is 41 percent, which would be the best in program history. “That's our dilemma, we chose to play this way and if that (defensive) field-goal percentage is there at the end of the season, we'll hang another banner.”
Oakland recently slid two spots to No. 14 in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major poll after a loss to Wright State. The Grizzlies rebounded with a blowout win over Southern and Saturday's overtime affair against the Governors.
Forward Will Hudson has been scoring at a higher clip than usual, recently achieving his first career double-double. He's averaging 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and attributes the uptick to his summer workouts and playing alongside Benson.
“A lot of it is offseason training and working around the basket and around the outside and understanding the game a little bit more,” he said. “When (Benson) draws double-teams, I have to find the open spot. It's just finding the gaps in the defense and being available.”
Junior guard Reggie Hamilton gets to play his first game against the Kangaroos Saturday after transferring from UMKC and sitting out last year.
“I expect them to come out and compete and try to get a win,” Hamilton said. “I know they'd love to beat me on my home court.”
“I know we have that big target on our back, so we just have to go into every game with that swagger, knowing these teams want to beat us.”
Oakland recently reinstated junior guard Drew Maynard on a practice basis, but it's unclear when he will rejoin the team in full. Maynard was suspended indefinitely in mid October, just days before the season was to officially begin.
The Thunderbirds (2-4) hold a 13-12 series advantage over Oakland, but the Grizzlies have won the past three meetings.
“We struggle with Southern Utah historically,” Kampe said. “Last year, we did very well against them. That doesn't happen very often.”
Oakland beat Southern Utah, 99-53, at the O’Rena last season.
The Oakland women's team (3-3) also opens conference play against Southern Utah (2-4) at 4:30 p.m. today (Thursday). The Grizzlies have won two straight after defeating Cornell at home Sunday. They finished second in the regular season last year, but were knocked out in the first round of the conference tournament.
“We've had two great practices and we're on a two-game win streak at home and we feel prepared,” Oakland women coach Beckie Francis said.
Although her team seems to be handling the ball well, Francis thinks they can get even better.
“Every Division I team in America is having turnover problems,” Francis said. “We're in the top 50 in assist-to-turnover ratio, in a good way. I'm being critical, but I want to take care of the ball better and I want to rebound better.”
The women are undefeated, 12-0, against the Thunderbirds at the O’Rena.
Paul Kampe covers Oakland University basketball for The Oakland Press. E-mail him at email@example.com and for more info, follow him on Twitter @PaulKampe.