Scout team strengthens surging Oakland

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Kahlil Felder is averaging a team-best 17.4 points.

Rochester — Scout teams aren't typically all that imposing.

Then there's Oakland University, where one starter after another raves about the group of players charged with preparing them for the next game.

"They've beaten us a couple times," senior center Corey Petros admitted.

"A couple practices, yes," sophomore point guard Kahlil Felder confirmed.

"More than a couple," coach Greg Kampe set the record straight.

Oakland (16-15) is in a unique position where the scout team, on many days at the O'Rena, is better than the starting roster. That's because it features three transfers from big-time Division I programs: center Percy Gibson and guard Sherron Dorsey-Walker from Iowa State, and guard Martez Walker from Texas.

Dorsey-Walker, a former Pershing star, and Gibson, a Southeastern grad, won't be eligible to play until next season, while Walker, also of Pershing, is at Oakland paying for his own classes while Kampe and Co. evaluate whether he's worth a roster spot next season following domestic-assault charges in Austin, Texas.

But the trio's impact on this season still looms large for an Oakland team that started the season 5-12. They then staged a furious rally to claim the No. 3 seed in the Horizon League tournament that starts for the Golden Grizzlies at 7 p.m. Friday, when they'll meet Illinois-Chicago at Valparaiso.

"There's a correlation between having those kids get here in January and all of a sudden we got good," Kampe said of Gibson, who's been practicing with Oakland all season, and Dorsey-Walker and Walker, who arrived in January. "Every day in practice, it's almost better than what we face in games.

"A lot of times, redshirts and guys that can't play, they're just trying to get through it. But the practices have been awesome, the best I've ever had in January. I've told them that if we win this, you're all gonna get rings."

Oakland hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011, but it actually has a shot to get back, given it's beaten every team in the Horizon League this season. Top-seed Valparaiso is the only other league team that can make that claim.

But if you would've assessed Oakland's chances two months ago, well, that conversation would've been very quick.

Now, part of Oakland's tough start was to be expected. During a five-game stretch in December, the Golden Grizzlies lost to Michigan State, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Clemson and Maryland — an uber-difficult schedule necessitated by Oakland's place in the Division I pecking order. It needs those games, and the $80,000 to $100,000 checks that come with them, so the team can fund its chartered planes and buses, and its rooms at the Marriott, for the season.

Those losses weren't the problem. The two games after were the problem — a loss to Cleveland State and an absolute thumping by rival Detroit on Jan. 10.

The next day, back at the O'Rena, the players closed the doors and had it out.

"Everybody got things off their chest," said Felder, the only player in the country to average 17 points and seven assists this season. "Everybody came to practice the next day, and it was clicking."

Added Petros, who's made 100 consecutive starts: "We talked about everything. After that, we turned the season around."

The main topic of conversation during that meeting, it appears, wasn't necessarily effort, but rather urgency with that effort.

The loss to Detroit, 74-54, was an eye-opener, because Oakland players felt Detroit wasn't as good — and were proved right when Detroit got the No. 5 seed in the Horizon League tournament. Detroit beat Younstown State, 77-67, in the first round Tuesday, and plays Cleveland State at 9:30 p.m. Friday.

Kampe, for one, was impressed that his players took it upon themselves to fix the issues — both on the court and off (the team's fall GPA was its best since joining Division I). And since that meeting, Oakland has won 11 of 14 (8-of-8 at home), including revenge against Detroit on Feb. 15.

"We had a long film session the next day, and it wasn't a lot of fun to be around here those couple days after," Kampe said of the Detroit loss fallout. "But instead of feeling sorry for themselves, and being mad at me or making excuses, they looked in the mirror and they said, 'Yes, we're the problem, let's fix it.'"

Two of the wins in the stretch came against tournament foe Illinois-Chicago (9-23), and neither game was particularly close. In fact, in eight meetings all-time, Oakland has never lost to Illinois-Chicago.

Oakland's scout team could probably beat Illinois-Chicago.

Heck, it's already beaten Oakland.

"Coming here, my first practice, I talked to Percy and Martez and told them our job is to get these guys better," said Dorsey-Walker, one of the Big Three on the scout team. "We just wanted to get them on the right track."

Horizon League tournament

First round

Detroit 77, Youngstown State 67

Illinois-Chicago 60, Wright State 57

Friday's second round

Oakland (16-15) vs. Illinois-Chicago (9-23), 7 p.m.

Cleveland State (17-13) vs. Detroit (15-17), 9:30 p.m.

Saturday's semifinals

Green Bay (23-7) vs. Oakland or Illinois-Chicago, 7 p.m.

Valparaiso (26-5) vs. Cleveland State or Detroit, 9:30 p.m. ESPNU

Tuesday's final

7 p.m., ESPN