Playing through pain, OU’s Nunn torches MSU

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the 24 hours before Oakland played its marquee game of this season — heck, let's be honest, its marquee game of every season — the saga of Kendrick Nunn and his balky ankle took one twist after another.

On Friday afternoon, Nunn had an MRI, and word came in the evening there might be a slight muscle tear.

"I was told he could be done for the year," coach Greg Kampe said. "I didn't tell him that."

The Oakland medical and training staff opted for a second opinion and set up a visit with a foot specialist during shootaround Saturday morning at Little Caesars Arena, and there, the diagnosis was much less haunting. He had tendinitis. That's why he's still sore nearly five weeks after suffering a sprained ankle in an early season nonleague game against New Orleans.

Relieved by the news, and assured he could do no further damage, Nunn went out and put on a show that won't soon be forgotten, scoring 32 as Oakland threatened to upset No. 2 Michigan State before eventually falling, 86-73, before an amped-up crowd that outdrew every Red Wings and Pistons game held at the young arena.

Nunn, 22, Oakland's star guard who transferred from Illinois, put the Golden Grizzlies on his back after they got down by a bunch early, as inspired an effort as Kampe's seen in his three decades-plus on the bench.

"I have all the respect in the world for Kendrick, because I couldn't figure out why he couldn't play with a sprained ankle five weeks later," Kampe said. "I was beginning to wonder. Now, 25 years ago, I might've used a word, you know?"

In other words, was Nunn, a legitimate NBA prospect — Kampe calls him an NBA lottery prospect — playing up the pain to protect his future, professional career?
Hey, it wouldn't be the first time a college kid played it safe, to protect his future earnings.

But after he got the official word from the specialist, Kampe went over and hugged Nunn.

"I said, 'Man, I understand. If you don't want to play, don't play,'" Kampe said. "He said, 'Coach, I want to play.' He was unbelievable.

"He played against that team, against that defense, at that level, for 38 minutes.

"He's got a future."

This might be Kampe's best team at Oakland, and let’s not forget, he's had some good ones. But injuries are threatening to derail the high expectations of this season.

Losing Nunn, a redshirt senior, would've been a total disaster.

He didn't play in the previous game against Chicago State, he did play in the previous two games against Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, and sat out the two games before that against Texas Southern and Oral Roberts.

Earlier, he played in the Syracuse and Kansas games, because he couldn't stand the thought of missing those.

"I like those types of games," said Nunn, "when the lights are bright."

Meanwhile, through that stretch, he's barely been able to practice, and had done practically nothing strenuous in the 11 days prior to Saturday's game against Michigan State.

Kampe now expects Nunn to play the rest of the way, through pain for a while. He'll pick his spots to rest him, like when games are out of hand, perhaps.

Doctors suspect the pain could subside as the season goes along, but there are no guarantees on that front.

For now, Nunn said he's getting the ankle wrapped tightly, and going from there.

"I was pretty relieved just to know I couldn't damage it anymore," said Nunn, who scored his 32 on 9-for-19 shooting. It's the second-highest point total of his collegiate career after he scored 36 in the season-opening victory over Fort Wayne. "Obviously, I played with some pain, but I can play through it.

"When my adrenaline gets going ..."

Oakland (6-5) plays host to Towson on Wednesday and Eastern Michigan on Friday before starting league play at Milwaukee on Dec. 28.

The Golden Grizzlies entered the season as heavy favorites to win the Horizon League championship and make the NCAA Tournament, especially following the departure of Valparaiso to the Missouri Valley Conference. A steady stream of injuries, especially to their big men, some long-term, some not, has left Kampe frustrated, and his bench ultra thin.

On Saturday, he played Martez Walker with three fouls in the first half.

And Nunn, who was slotted to play 20 minutes, ended up playing 38.

"That's how bad of a coach I am," Kampe quipped.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said switching Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn onto Nunn, defensively, proved the cure, though Kampe suggested Nunn's late fade was more of a fatigue issue.

Still, it was a heart-heavy performance, even if in the end, it wasn't enough to get Oakland over the hump against its blossoming rival in Michigan State.

The Spartans now are 16-0 in the series, though there have been several close calls, especially in recent years.

"This young man played like that after not touching a basketball since a week ago Wednesday," Kampe said of Nunn, who's now averaging 23 points a game. "It shows the mind over matter.

"Now we can treat him. Now we know playing's not going to hurt him.

"It's tendinitis. Tendinitis hurts. But it's not fatal."