Oakland, Detroit Mercy face 'dangerous' games in bid to make Horizon League tourney

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Greg Kampe

It may be cold outside.

But the temperature sure is rising in the Horizon League men's basketball standings, especially for Oakland and Detroit Mercy, each of which faces two major games in Wisconsin this week.

The league is going to an eight-team postseason tournament this year, meaning the bottom two in the regular-season standings will be left out.

While there's a little wiggle room between the Golden Grizzlies, Titans and the No. 9 spot in the standings, there's not much — and things could get even dicier over the upcoming three days if they aren't careful.

"We've dug ourselves a hole," said Detroit Mercy coach Mike Davis, whose team has lost three straight and six of seven. "It's a dangerous time of the season for everybody."

Said Oakland coach Greg Kampe, whose team has lost two straight and three of four: "If you look at it, we're still in danger of even making the conference tournament. We're all fighting for the same thing."

With five regular-season games remaining, there is separation at the top of the Horizon League standings, where Northern Kentucky is 10-3 and Wright State is 9-4. There's separation at the bottom, too, where Cleveland State is 2-11.

But the seven teams between Nos. 1 and 2 and No. 10 are bunched up, especially spots three through six — with Illinois-Chicago 7-5, Oakland 7-6, Green Bay 6-6, IUPUI 6-6, Detroit Mercy 6-7, Youngstown State 6-7 and Milwaukee 4-8.

The top four seeds host a first-round tournament game, the next four travel for a first-round game, and the bottom two don't even get a postseason game.

This week, Oakland and Detroit Mercy both take a critical trip through Wisconsin, with Detroit Mercy at Milwaukee and Oakland at Green Bay on Thursday, and with Detroit Mercy at Green Bay and Oakland at Milwaukee on Saturday.

The Milwaukee games are especially bullet-pointed, given that's the No. 9 team in the standings, but still able to make up serious ground with two wins this week. But Green Bay is plenty critical, too, given its position next to Oakland and Detroit Mercy in the middle-of-the-standings cluster.

Mike Davis

The tournament-entry tiebreaker starts with head-to-head — Detroit Mercy has beaten Milwaukee, Oakland has lost to Milwaukee — with the tiebreaker being the involved teams record against the top team in the league, then second place, and on down.

"Their game with Detroit is huge," Kampe said of Milwaukee. "If they beat Detroit, they're only a half-game behind Detroit, then they'd really have to beat us. We're gonna be the benefactor of that or we're gonna, when we go in there, they're either gonna be, 'We're out of it' or,  'We're right there.' That game, for sure, scares me. But we have to take care of Green Bay."

Kampe's team has had its ups and downs, as expected. It's a young team, having lost a handful of redshirt seniors off last year's team, then it lost two projected starters before the Golden Grizzlies even played a league game this year.

It's led to some players stepping up — freshman point guard Braden Norris, big man Brad Brechting and Xavier Hill-Mais among them — but some growing pains, too.

Davis' team, by many accounts, has overachieved, given it had such significant roster turnover following Bacari Alexander's firing after two years as coach, and given the Titans were picked to finish last in the preseason poll.

Yet, Detroit Mercy got off to a 5-1 record in league play, led by the coach's son, freshman Antoine Davis, who is quickly approaching Steph Curry's NCAA record for 3-pointers by a freshman. (He's at 108, Curry had 122, so interestingly, Davis might be in position to break the record during the game at Oakland, next weekend.)

Then came a reality check, including back-to-back blowouts against the league's cream of the crop, Northern Kentucky and Wright State.

That's why Davis, the father, is having a hard time getting excited about Davis, the son, during this historic chase that's earned the kid a whole lot of national publicity.

"It's hard to get excited. ... I hate to say that right now, but we're just focusing on our team and trying to win games," said Davis, the coach. "A great season for this team would be to make the top eight and get into the tournament."

And that's no done deal yet.

Check back in a day or three.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984