Oakland coach Greg Kampe talked to The News following a morning shootaround Saturday at Little Caesars Arena, ahead of Sunday night's Horizon League tournament game against IUPUI. Tony Paul, Detroit News
Detroit — Back in September, when the Oakland men’s basketball team first convened to start preparing for one of the most-anticpated seasons in program history, coach Greg Kampe delivered a stern, direct message.
“It doesn’t matter what we do all year,” Kampe said then, “you’re going to be judged by three days in March.”
Well, March is here.
And Kampe can only hope his team gets three days in March.
The Golden Grizzlies open Horizon League tournament play at 7:30 p.m. Sunday against IUPUI — and will attempt to erase all the bad memories from this event.
Oakland has played in four Horizon League tournaments, and has compiled a 1-4 record, including first-game exits each of the last three years to worse seeds. Last year, top-seeded Oakland was stunned by No. 9 Youngstown State on a last-second shot; in 2016, No. 2 Oakland lost to No. 3 Wright State; and in 2015, No. 3 Oakland lost to No. 6 UIC.
Kampe’s crew hasn’t won a tournament championship since 2011, in the Summit League.
“Two years ago, we didn’t play till Monday night, when we got a double-bye. Last year, we opened Saturday night. This year, Sunday,” Kampe said following a light workout at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday morning.
“Those two weren’t good. Maybe this is the day we finally win one.
“It just hasn’t gone our way the last three years.”
To be honest, things really haven’t gone Oakland’s way this year, either.
Picked prior to the season to repeat as regular-season champions, the Golden Grizzlies were dealt one significant injury after another and limped down the stretch, finishing 18-13 and 10-8 for a fourth-place finish in the conference.
Oakland is down to seven scholarship players, following the season-ending ankle injury to red-shirt senior Martez Walker.
So depleted, in its regular-season finale, a 72-70 victory over Milwaukee, Kampe played red-shirt freshman Chris Gilbert 16 minutes. He had played 13 minutes all season before that.
Kampe’s never seen anything like this injury rash, not that he’s making excuses. Even if he wanted to, he knows it’s not a good look.
“The year just hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to,” he said.
There has been one serious bright spot, and that’s the emergence of red-shirt senior guard Kendrick Nunn, the Illinois transfer who is second in the nation in scoring. He has 11 30-point games, most in the nation, including in each of the last two games (37, 39).
If Oakland is to get by No. 5 seed IUPUI (11-18, 8-10) — the teams split in the regular season — Nunn again will have to shoulder the heavy load. His season-high for shots attempted is 31, and he’ll probably have to blow right by that, even though he could be triple-teamed while fellow red-shirt senior Jalen Hayes is double-teamed.
Given all that’s gone on this season, the expectations would seem to be a bit tempered for Oakland this time around. And maybe that’ll be a good thing, since Kampe’s crew really hasn’t handled the pressure too well in recent years.
Then again, there’s still plenty of pressure in this regard — this is an opt-out year for Olympia Entertainment with the Horizon League tournaments, and sagging ticket sales could lead to the tournaments heading elsewhere next year. A win or two by Oakland would go a long way toward pushing box-office numbers upward.
“Absolutely. I mean, we had 8,000 people last year (against Youngstown State) and we lose,” Kampe said. “If we win, there’s maybe 16,000 more tickets they would’ve sold.
“I feel it on our shoulders. I always have since it came here.”
HORIZON LEAGUE TOURNAMENT
No. 4 Oakland vs. No. 5 IUPUI
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Records: Oakland 18-13; IUPUI 11-18
Outlook: The only win Oakland has in the Horizon League tournament came in 2014, when, as a No. 6 seed, it beat No. 7 Youngstown State in the opening game, 96-92, in OT. ... This is IUPUI’s first year in the Horizon League, having replaced Valparaiso.