Victory at Western Illinois a critical road win for young team
“We’ve been pretty mediocre this year, but the one thing we’ve done is win on the road,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said Tuesday on WXOU. “We haven’t won at home, which is a surprise.”
Kampe was forced to start freshman Matt Poches for the first time Saturday due to the one-game suspension of guard Ryan Bass for academic reasons. The three freshmen didn’t score and Dante Williams played just four minutes, but Oakland went home with the double-overtime victory.
“We’ve handled hostile environments,” Kampe said. “Western Illinois was the worst it’s ever been. … It was a very well-played game at a very high level.”
The makeup of the team would likely be different had Ledrick Eackles, a would-be junior, and incoming senior big man Ilija Milutinovic, who opted to go pro in Europe in the offseason, both returned. That left just five players with previous experience at Oakland to start the season.
“They had five years of Oakland playing time between them,” Kampe said. “We lost them and then we only had five years left.”
One of those experienced players, redshirt junior Blake Cushingberry, has since left the team.
Milutinovic was expected in part to fill the void created by the loss of Will Hudson and Keith Benson to graduation. Redshirt freshmen Corey Petros, who got off to a hot start this season, and Kyle Sikora, have instead been tasked with manning what was a formidable frontcourt with two experienced pillars.
“You have to be realistic — somewhere that inexperience is going to show up. It’s raised its head at times," Kampe said.
And at other times, the Grizzlies have gotten it done with a young lineup. They managed Saturday not just a four-point victory, but one that goes a long way in the Summit League standings, giving the Grizzlies a tiebreakers in various scenarios. The Grizzlies are currently tied with Southern Utah for fifth place in the conference at 7-7 and could leapfrog the Thunderbirds by virtue of a season sweep, which could be accomplished next Wednesday.
A fourth or fifth seed to the conference tournament could go a long way in early March. Kampe conceeded the Grizzlies won’t reach the third seed unless there’s a complete collapse by North Dakota State. By Kampe’s estimates, if the Grizzlies win out over their final four conference games, they should get fourth place in the final standings. It would be the first time since 2005-06 Oakland has finished outside the top three, but it would be better for Oakland to face Western Illinois or Southern Utah in the first round rather than the Bison or South Dakota State.
“It put us in a good position to not be sixth,” he said. “You don’t want to be sixth or seventh. I want to be 11-7 and whatever happens, happens.”