Oakland preview: Grizzlies rebuilding after failed shot

By Eric Coughlin
Special to The Detroit News
Brailen Neely

Oakland University coach Greg Kampe knows his team fell short of expectations last season.

His senior-heavy squad finished fourth in the Horizon League after being picked by most to win it all. They bowed out in the Horizon League tournament semifinals at Little Caesars Arena to Cleveland State.

“When teams walk into the O’Rena, they know they don’t win here,” Kampe said at Oakland’s media day last week. “When they play Oakland, they know that if they win it’s a big deal. It used to be that way. We’ve got to get back to that. It takes some time, but we will.”

Kampe enters his 35th season as head coach after being inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame last year. He got to 600 wins last season, at the time the 15th active coach to reach the milestone, but he’s never had this many question marks headed into a season.

“We had a very disappointing year last year,” Kampe said. “You can point fingers at injuries; we lost five guys for the season. But nobody’s going to look back at that. They’re going to look back and say we had a team that could have won 30 games last year and we won 19.”

One thing this season’s team won’t have to deal with that last season’s did is big expectations. With seniors Kendrick Nunn, Martez Walker, Nick Daniels and Jalen Hayes around, plus rim-protecting forward Isaiah Brock, it was NCAA Tournament or bust.

This season Oakland was picked fourth in the Horizon preseason poll.

After losing so much to graduation and Brock to transfer – something Kampe admits he didn’t see coming – Oakland is left with a lot of unknowns.

Junior guard Brailen Neely returns after starting 14 games last year and averaging 21 minutes. He was on the floor last season for Oakland the most out of anyone still on the team this season.

“It’s going to be a bit more challenging stepping in with a lot of young guys,” Neely said. “The hardest thing is getting everyone to want it as bad as you do. The coach and I have talked about how much my responsibility has picked up.”

None of Oakland’s three captains played last year. Redshirt junior center Brad Brechting had a foot injury, junior forward Xavier Hill-Mais redshirted, and redshirt junior guard Jaevin Cumberland had a knee injury. Kampe emphasized that all three players have played supporting roles their entire careers.

“Last year we scored 2,540 points,” Kampe said. “We have just over 200 points back. Never in my life have I been associated with something like that. It’s my first time in 35 years as head coach that I haven’t had a kid on the preseason all-league team.”

Newcomers will have to help with the scoring load. Eastern Michigan graduate transfer Jordan Nobles will be the only senior on the team, joining three other new faces – freshmen Braden Norris, Babatunde Sowunmi and Trayvon Maddox, from Novi.

“My freshman class is really good,” Kampe said. “We had a scrimmage where those three freshmen were on the same team and they were winning at halftime. But you’re not going to win with multiple freshmen at our level.”

Neely has been particularly impressed with Maddox.

“Trayvon Maddox stands out,” Neely said. “He’s 6-4 with a real athletic build and can shoot. He should be really impressive this year.”

Kampe also had high praise for Maddox.

“From a talent standpoint, as an incoming freshman, he’s at the highest level I’ve ever had,” Kampe said. “He’s an outstanding shooter. He could become a really good defender, he’s got to get a little stronger, but he’s a little wayward and a little lackadaisical. He doesn’t have issues, he’s just got to learn how to play hard. He and I are a little bit at odds with that right now, but I believe he’s going to be an unbelievable player at Oakland.”

Oakland opens the season on Nov. 9 at home against Toledo, and then things get really difficult in December. It’s on the road for the entire month, including games at Xavier on Dec. 1, at Georgia on Dec. 18 and at Michigan State on Dec. 21.

Having so many away games could actually help a young team build chemistry, but for now Kampe is just trying to figure out who’s going to start on Nov. 9, something that’s usually sorted out by the final whistle of the previous season.

“I don’t know who’s going to have the ball with the game on the line,” Kampe said. “In some ways it’s exciting, and in some ways it’s nerve-wracking.”

Oakland Golden Grizzlies

Coach: Greg Kampe (35th season, 602-438, 55-31 Horizon)

Last year’s record: 19-14 (10-8 Horizon)

Top returning players: Brailen Neely, 5-9, Jr., guard (4 points, 5.5 assists); James Beck, 6-8, So., forward (3.3 points, 3.6 rebounds); Stan Scott, 6-3, So., guard (10 minutes, 2.4 points)

This player will surprise everyone with a big season: Eastern Michigan grad transfer Jordan Nobles was a top reserve at EMU last season. He only averaged 4.7 points and 2.4 rebounds per game, but he’ll get more minutes this year with Oakland. The 6-9 forward led Eastern in 3-point shooting at 38 percent.

Oakland can win the Horizon League championship if ... Freshmen, transfers and returners mix well, plus Oakland gets a boost from somewhere unexpected, maybe 6-7 junior guard Xavier Hill-Mais, who redshirted last year.

Toughest opponent: Cassius Winston, Tom Izzo and the rest of 10th-ranked Michigan State’s basketball team will be waiting for Oakland on Dec. 21 in East Lansing.