Foster: Grueling slate steels Oakland for Horizon run

Terry Foster
The Detroit News

Rochester — In December, the Oakland men's basketball team went through a grueling five-game road stretch that did not make sense to many Golden Grizzlies fans.

Oakland traveled to Michigan State, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Clemson and Maryland. Head coach Greg Kampe vowed to slay a giant.

The closest he came was during an 81-77 overtime loss to Pittsburgh.

So was it a lost trip? Maybe not. The payoff can come during the next two weeks when Oakland tries to validate itself by spinning a tough December journey into tough road wins in Horizon League play.

Oakland (10-12 overall, 5-2 Horizon) is in the hunt for a league title. But it will discover pretty quickly if it is a pretender or contender. On Feb. 15, Oakland plays its next home game at the O'rena when it tries to avenge an embarrassing loss this month at Calihan Hall to Detroit.

It could be a big game depending on what Oakland does during a strech of four straight road games, which begins Sunday at Youngstown State.

Here is the good news. Youngstown State (10-13, 1-7), Illinois Chicago (5-16, 1-5) and Milwaukee (7-14, 2-5) are bottom feeders in the league. The bad news is Valparaiso (19-4 overall, 6-2 in the league) is not.

The two teams could be playing for first place in the conference.

Valpo is one of the most respected mid-majors in the country and is a difficult place to play. Oakland beat Valpo 89-75 at home in overtime earlier this month and the Feb. 8 rematch should be just as thrilling.

Kampe is criticized for playing tough non-league opponents but he does it for moments like this.

"I have a young team with kids who are starry-eyed," Kampe said. "They got to know what the grind is. If you are going through the grind for the first time you won't succeed."

Kampe can schedule tough games simply because he is Greg Kampe. He is established and looks at the big picture. His big mission is to win the Horizon League tournament, which gives teams a seat in the NCAA Tournament. First- and second-place teams gets home games and double byes to the semifinals.

Third- and fourth-place teams earn one bye game.

"Bobby Knight used to say these are the games that put you in position to play for a championship," Kampe said.

Fab freshmen

There are some pretty terrific freshmen at Detroit and at Oakland. Oakland's Jalen Hayes might have had his coming out party with a 27-point night during an overtime win over Wright State. Paris Bass, a 6-foot-7 guard/forward who played at Birmingham Seaholm, probably will win league freshman of the year for Detroit.

Oakland's Nick Daniels is interesting also. He is not afraid to attempt big shots. He hit two big ones during Wednesday night's win against Wright State.

This nothing new for him.

Kampe saw Daniels playing a pickup game at Oakland as a teammate of former Piston Brandon Knight before he came to Oakland.

It was a tight game coming down to the wire. Daniels had the ball, waved off an open Knight and hit the winning basket.

"I said I got to have that guy," Kampe said.