Detroit — So, big game?
"Man, I'm still trying to find a small game," Detroit Mercy men's basketball coach Bacari Alexander said, with a laugh.
"I tell ya, if there's a small game out here and you find it, you let me know."
The point is well taken. The Horizon League is a bit more bunched up than most expected, especially in the middle of the standings — where Oakland, the preseason favorite to win the league, and Detroit Mercy, the No. 4 pick, reside heading into Saturday afternoon's rivalry showdown at Calihan Hall.
The teams tip at 4 p.m., following the Detroit Mercy-Milwaukee women's game, which starts at 1 p.m.
Detroit Mercy (6-14, 2-5) and Oakland (12-8, 4-3) both have righted the ship in recent weeks, with the Titans having won two of three following an 11-game losing streak, and the Golden Grizzlies having won three straight following a surprising three-game losing streak.
"Are we getting better?" Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. "I hope so."
Saturday's game kicks off big stretches for both teams. It's a rivalry game, so emotions will be high. Then, next week, both head out on the road to play Northern Kentucky and Wright State, the teams atop the league standings — and two teams who came into Metro Detroit earlier this month and swept Detroit Mercy and Oakland.
Kampe actually makes the point his last game, a victory over fourth-placed UIC, kicked off his team's pivotal four-game stretch.
Saturday's matchup is an intriguing one, to be sure — pitting the top two offenses in the conference against each other. Detroit Mercy is tops at 81.5 points a game (39th nationally) and Oakland is second at 81.2 points (41st nationally).
Kendrick Nunn, the transfer from Illinois, paces Oakland at 25.8 points a game, second in the nation behind Oklahoma's Trae Young (29.5).
"He's having player-of-the-year numbers," Alexander said. "We have to make sure he gets the proper attention he deserves. I'm not sure how much you can slow a kid like that down."
Nunn is just one of several redshirt seniors for the veteran Oakland team. Martez Walker, Nick Daniels and Jalen Hayes are the others.
Detroit Mercy is like so many of the other Horizon League teams — especially young. But it's mostly fearless youth, especially freshman Jermaine Jackson Jr. and sophomore Corey Allen, to go with juniors Kam Chatman, the transfer from Michigan who's returned from a concussion, and Josh McFolley.
It was Allen who went the length of the floor in 3.9 seconds to beat Cleveland State on Jan. 10, snapping Detroit Mercy's skid — an 11-game drought that included eight losses by single digits.
"They have four guys that can score the ball from anywhere on the floor and they play without a conscience," Kampe said. "I don't think any of the four of them ever thought, 'Oh, that was a bad shot,' and that's dangerous for preparation because any one of those guys can go for 25."
Oakland is a bit thinner than Detroit Mercy. Kampe has been using a seven-man rotation lately; he prefers eight and last year often used nine, but injuries have handcuffed him. That's led to obscene minute totals for several players, which Kampe fears could bit Oakland down the road.
Help could be on the way, though. James Beck, a 6-foot-8 freshman guard, has practiced off and on this week and could return to the floor Saturday after battle stress fractures. Kampe said he's "50-50" to play. Junior center Brad Brechting (toe surgery) still is two weeks away, and thus is considering a medical redshirt.
The injuries have led to the emergence of sophomore swingman Chris Palombizio, whose effort and hustle have been impressive. He'll be key, along with Isaiah Brock, in getting Oakland to play from the rim out to the 3-point line, rather than the other way around, Kampe said.
For Detroit Mercy, it's been forward Roschon Prince, a graduate transfer from Long Beach State, who has really stepped up — given forward Jaleel Hogan hasn't been a huge contributor this season as he continues to try to work his way back into game shape after being ineligible over the summer. Hogan hasn't played the last three games, since fall-semester grades were posted, nor has Schoolcraft College transfer Tariiq Jones.
"You're talking about the No. 1 and 2 scoring offenses in the conference," Alexander said. "I imagine it will be a very entertaining contest."
Oakland has won four of the last five meetings, and is 6-2 in the series since joining the Horizon League in 2013.
OAKLAND AT DETROIT MERCY
Tip-off: 4 p.m. Saturday, Calihan Hall, Detroit
TV/radio: ESPN3/1130, 910
Records: Oakland 12-8, 4-3 Horizon; Detroit Mercy 6-14, 2-5
Outlook: This is the 21st meeting between the schools, with Detroit Mercy leading the series, 13-7. They split last year, each team winning on the road. ... Detroit Mercy is 12-3 all-time against Oakland at Calihan Hall, but the Golden Grizzlies have won two of the last three.