Getting to the second round of the NIT would be considered a good year for most mid-major programs, a cute story, if you will.
“We’re not a cute story anymore,” Oakland University men’s coach Greg Kampe said several times during the team’s media day last week.
Oakland entered the Horizon League tournament last year as the No. 1 seed after winning the league’s regular season, poised to make a run for the NCAA Tournament, but they were upset in the quarterfinals and landed in the NIT.
A boatload of talent and experience returns, leading Oakland to receive votes in the preseason AP poll and some of the highest expectations the program has ever had. Kampe knows this team will be judged by what happens in March.
“Yeah I want to win the conference championship because for me winning conference championships, if I just took my opinion and my views, that’s all I really care about because that’s a statement of your team and your season, not three days in March,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s all social media cares about. That’s all fans care about is they want to go to the NCAA Tournament. I’m understanding that with this team, we’re going to try to do that.”
Leading the charge are four redshirt seniors, including highly-acclaimed Illinois transfer Kendrick Nunn, a big-time scorer who had 40 in Oakland’s exhibition against Central Michigan.
“I think we will live up to the expectations because we’ve got a lot of guys that are high-major players and we don’t back down from anything,” Nunn said.
“Kendrick is an amazing player. In our last scrimmage against Central, although I’m on the court, I’m still watching him play. Playing with him is amazing. He’s going to bring a lot to the team with scoring, defense and leadership too, coming from the Big Ten,” sophomore forward Isaiah Brock said.
Guard Nick Daniels is a defensive specialist.
“Nick Daniels is tremendous. He will lead us. He will make people do what they’re supposed to do and he’ll be another voice besides the coaching staff ringing in their ears,” Kampe said.
Forward Jalen Hayes and guard Martez Walker led the team in points last year, averaging 17.8 and 15.9, respectively. Joining them is Brock, 24, who had 72 blocks last year, putting him fifth in program history.
“Expectations are very high because of what happened last year in the Horizon League Tournament, especially with the new additions to our team like Kendrick. We set high goals for ourselves. We look forward to achieving those and going out and giving it all we’ve got this year,” Brock said.
Oakland will soon find out if they can hang with the blue bloods. It plays at Syracuse on Nov. 20, then the team will hop on a plane on Thanksgiving Day to play at Kansas on Nov. 24. Michigan State will await Oakland at Little Caesars Arena on Dec. 16.
“We could be receiving these AP votes and then not play anybody. And they would say, ‘Well they haven’t played anybody.’ They’re not going to be able to do that to us,” Kampe said.
Nunn is looking forward to seeing some old Big Ten foes.
“I’m definitely excited to play against high-major teams. I’m sure they’ll remember me too,” Nunn said.
Kampe was hospitalized over the summer with a life-threatening case of sepsis and has vowed to take better care of himself during the season.
“I don’t take care of myself during the season, and I’m going to have to do that. People on the outside don’t see what we do and what it does to us. That’s our profession. When you lose a game you shouldn’t lose or a game’s close or you’re feeling the heat of that, I’m an eater. I love comfort food and comfort food’s not good for you. That’s what I’m worried about,” Kampe said.
In what could be one of the most pressure-packed seasons in Kampe’s lengthy tenure, he would be wise to lean on the leadership on the court, and he’s ready to do just that.
Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Coach: Greg Kampe (34th season, 583-424, 45-23 Horizon)
Last year’s record: 25-9 (14-4 Horizon)
Top returning players: Jalen Hayes, 6-7, Sr., forward (15.9 points, 8 rebounds), Martez Walker, 6-6, Sr., guard (17.8 points, 31.6 percent 3-point shooting), Isaiah Brock, 6-9, So., forward (6.1 points, 2.2 blocks).
Who can’t have a bad season? Especially with the addition of Kendrick Nunn, Oakland will score, but no player can replicate Isaiah Brock’s shot-blocking ability. If Brock struggles on the defensive end, Oakland may fall short of its goals.
Who must have a good season? Either Martez Walker or Jalen Hayes must have a good season. Oakland can absorb one of the two having a bad offensive year, adding Kendrick Nunn into the scoring mix, but not both.
This player will surprise everyone with a big season: Sophomore guard Brailen Neely averaged three assists per game in limited time last year, but the two players who averaged more assists both graduated, leaving Neely with the potential to drop a lot of dimes this season.
Oakland can win the Horizon League championship if ... It maintains focus throughout the season, Kendrick Nunn plays like an NBA lottery pick, or some of the younger players play as well as the older ones.
Oakland won’t win the Horizon League if ... Kendrick Nunn is severely rusty after a year off, Martez Walker and Jalen Hayes can’t score and Isaiah Brock loses his shot-blocking instincts.
Toughest opponent: Miles Bridges, Tom Izzo and Michigan State will help Oakland break in Little Caesars Arena to college basketball on Dec. 16.
Team not to overlook on the schedule: New Orleans finished 20-12 last season, winning the Southland Conference regular season and tournament titles on its way to the NCAA tournament. Unlike many mid-majors that make the tournament, New Orleans held onto its coach, Mark Slessinger. The Golden Grizzlies will host the Privateers on Nov. 13 at the O’rena.
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.