Detroit — Early Sunday evening, Oakland men's basketball coach Greg Kampe was sitting in his hotel room in Southfield and staring at the wall.
A painting caught his attention.
And it set the tone for the conversation.
"This was a blank canvas when the season started," he said. "We were playing guys who never played college basketball. I mean, we recruited them, so we felt they would be good. But we knew a maturation process had to take place, including a learning curve for the coaches — who plays, who's gonna shoot the shot, who can you trust?
"We just had a blank canvas. You could've painted on that canvas ninth place, or eighth place, or sixth place."
As the season went on, though, the picture started getting prettier — and it's really come into focus lately, as the Golden Grizzlies have won five straight.
It's a winning streak that first got Oakland off the bubble for even making the Horizon League tournament field, and eventually earned the Golden Grizzlies the No. 3 seed and, thus, a home game in the opening round, in which they narrowly dispatched Youngstown State to advance to the tournaments semifinals.
At 9:30 Monday night, Oakland (16-16) plays second-seeded Northern Kentucky (24-8) at Little Caesars Arena. Two more victories, and Oakland would be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
"The canvas is not done," Kampe said. "We have a couple more strokes of the brush."
The Oakland men's team is the lone local team playing at LCA in the Horizon League tournament, which this year had to condense the tournament schedule — limiting the teams that made the tournaments from all 10 to just eight, and staging first-round games at campus sites. The Detroit Mercy men lost on the road to Northern Kentucky, the Oakland women lost on the road to Wright State, and Detroit Mercy women didn't make the tournament.
This is the final year of Motor City Madness in Detroit. It's been a four-year run (three for the women) that included the first two years at Joe Louis Arena, and the last two at LCA.
Attendance hasn't come close to meeting expectations — Horizon League officials touted the super-popular Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis, or "Arch Madness," as the goal but that never materialized — and, so, next year the tournament moves to Indianapolis, home of the league's headquarters.
"Personally, I've always felt our lack of success in the tournament, I think, hurt it," said Kampe, who, despite high expectations, never got to the championship game in Detroit. "I feel half to blame it didn't work here. A couple more wins by us and I'm sure they would've made a lot more money. I feel bad about that."
In 2016, No. 2 Oakland got a double-bye into the semifinals, and was upset by Wright State. In 2017, No. 1 Oakland was stunned by No. 9 Youngstown State on a last-second shot in the quarterfinals. And in 2018, No. 4 Oakland was upset by No. 8 Cleveland State in the semifinals.
A local team only played in the championship game once, the Detroit Mercy women's team in 2017.
The Oakland men could change that this week, and send the tournament off in style.
The Golden Grizzlies and Norse split the regular-season series — with Oakland winning at home, 76-74, in early in January, and losing on the road, 79-64, in early February. Kampe said his team improved greatly from Game 1 to Game 2.
"In February at their place, I thought we had cut the margin. Even though they beat us, I thought we cut the margin in half," said Kampe, who felt from the beginning of the season that Northern Kentucky, led by league player of the year Drew McDonald, was the class of the Horizon League. "Now we've had another month. We've improved. We know each other. We've gotten better. We're gonna find out if we've cut the margin again. We'll see if we got to equal them, or better them."
Oakland came into the season having said goodbye to a swarm of senior stars, then early in the season, incumbent point guard Brailen Neely left the program.
This year's team has no seniors, and was going to heavily rely on a player, redshirt junior forward Xavier Hill-Mais, who sat last season. Hill-Mais has more than lived up to the billing — earning first-team all-league honors, even while playing through a broken nose suffered early in the season — and several young players have emerged, including Braden Norris, an all-freshman pick who assumed the point-guard duties; red-shirt sophomore guard Karmari Newman; freshman guard Tray Maddox, from Novi; and redshirt junior guard Jaevin Cumberland. Also coming on big has been redshirt junior center Brad Brechting, who missed all of last season after suffering a broken toe. He's averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds the last 10 games.
During the five-game winning streak, Oakland has had five players score in double-figures in three of the games, and four in the other two games. That's big progress from early in the season, when if Hill-Mais didn't go off in the scoring department, the Golden Grizzlies almost always lost.
Now, there's great balance — and thus a great chance to make up for the past few years of disappointments in the Horizon League tournament.
"I want to get to every championship game, but deep inside, the feeling I have over what's happened in Detroit, that's something that will never leave me," Kampe said. "The funny thing in this business, everybody always asks what your best wins are. You expect those things. It's those disappointments that haunt you. I'll go to my grave thinking about Kay Felder's ball rolling around the rim against Michigan State (at The Palace in 2015, when Oakland lost in overtime).
"And this is another thing that will haunt me the rest of my coaching career. We've had some really good teams that didn't get to the championship game in Detroit.
"Would I be excited as can be to get there? Yes. But that ain't gonna change the past."
Horizon League tournaments
At Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
►No. 1 Wright State (20-12) vs. No. 4 Green Bay (17-15), 7 (ESPNU)
►No. 2 Northern Kentucky (24-8) vs. No. 3 Oakland (16-16), 9:30 (ESPNU/1130)
►No. 1 Wright State (24-6) vs. No. 4 IUPUI (19-10), 1
►No. 3 Youngstown State (21-8) vs. No. 2 Green Bay (20-8), 3:30