Back in 2011, the last time Oakland made the NCAA Tournament, then-Texas coach Rick Barnes said Oakland could’ve finished in the middle of the pack in the Big 12.
On Monday, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Oakland is better than some teams it’ll see in the Big Ten this season.
“That’s when you know you’ve got a really great team,” said Oakland coach Greg Kampe, “when great coaches make comments like that.”
Oakland is generating a bit of buzz in college basketball circles these days, especially after Saturday night’s dominating, 97-83 road victory over Washington — the Golden Grizzlies’ first road win over a power-five program in five years.
Now comes the test of all tests — a Tuesday night showdown against No. 1 Michigan State, at what is expected to be a sold-out Palace of Auburn Hills.
A win for Oakland is not out of the question, especially with news that MSU star Denzel Valentine will miss at least two weeks after having his knee scoped.
Not that Kampe’s jumping up and down about that.
“Denzel is like a relative to me,” said Kampe, who has Denzel’s brother, Drew Valentine, on his coaching staff. “The last thing I’d ever want to see is him not in the game. His brother played for me, coaches for me, the family, I’m very close to that family and that young man.
“It’s almost like my own son not being able to play.
“I think Tom Izzo thrives in adversity. That’s why they’re so good in March. He’ll have that team ready. I can just hear him in the locker room, ‘Everybody thinks we’re only good because of Denzel!’ ”
Valentine has found his way into the national player-of-the-year conversation early on, with two triple-doubles for 12-0 Michigan State.
Caris LeVert gets the publicity at Michigan.
But few are talking yet about Oakland junior Kay Felder. That won’t last, not after his 38-point performance Saturday that earned him Horizon League player-of-the-week honors.
Felder, the former Detroit Pershing standout, leads Division I with 8.9 assists per game, and is second in scoring at 25.9.
“Nah, I don’t really like all the attention,” Felder said after practice Monday at The Palace, when asked if he’s waiting for his name to start getting some pub.
“All I’m doing, I’m doing this for Oakland, for us to win games.”
Oakland is off to a 7-3 start, but has won four straight — following a tough, 86-82 loss at Georgia.
Kampe doesn’t like to compare one of his teams to another — it can come off as disrespectful — but he does say this is the most talented he’s had, one through 11.
Oakland has five players averaging double-digit scoring, including Percy Gibson (15.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Max Hooper (12.3 ppg) and Jalen Hayes (12.1).
Technically, you can add Martez Walker into that mix, after he scored 18 in his season debut Saturday. The Detroit native transferred after getting into some trouble in Texas. He was given no guarantees of a scholarship when he transferred, but did everything the coaches asked him to to do, and now he is a huge piece to the puzzle.
On Saturday, Oakland’s big lead was cut to 10 by Washington; Felder had been sidelined for a bit after tweaking an ankle, and so Martez took over and scored eight points over the next minute to put the game away.
“Another guy we can go to,” Felder said, adding Walker brings intensity to defense and rebounding. “That’s just perfect for us.”
Oakland’s schedule is tough again this year, as the Golden Grizzlies will play another top-five team, No. 5 Virginia, on Dec. 30.
First thing’s first, though, and that’s Michigan State — which is 13-0 against Oakland, all the games in Kampe’s tenure.
There have been some close calls — a one-pointer, and two four-pointers.
But Kampe would love to pick one off, finally — especially given the expected atmosphere and a crowd around 20,000.
“We’ve come so close,” Kampe said. “There’s also been some 30-point losses. This is an opportunity. They’re the pinnacle of what everybody wants to be. They’re the standard, the Cadillac of college basketball.
“You’ve got a great program, great players, great fan base, a Hall-of-Fame coach. They’re everything you’d want your program to be. If you can compete with them, that’s what you want to do.
“There won’t (need to) be any pregame speech for this one.”