'Hate to see it end:' Oakland's season ends in heartbreak, but future is bright

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Oakland forward Xavier Hill-Mais, right, is one of a bevy of players expected to return next season for the Golden Grizzlies.

Detroit — Even in the immediate aftermath of one of the most crushing defeats in Greg Kampe's recent memory, the Oakland coach was able to think big picture.

This wasn't supposed to be one of those great Golden Grizzlies' seasons. They lost a boatload of talent from last season's team, then were, fairly, picked to finish in the bottom half of the Horizon League standings.

And then, just days into the regular season — after some players skimped on their studies and, thus, were swiftly benched by Kampe — their starting point guard left the program and he had to turn things over to a freshman with the face of a fourth-grader.

Yet, there was Oakland late Monday night, with a two-point lead over the favorite, Northern Kentucky, with less than 10 seconds to go at a rowdy Little Caesars Arena. The elation didn't last long. After an Oakland timeout in which Kampe expressly instructed not to allow a 3, Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky's star and the Horizon League player of the year, was allowed to shoot a 3, he made it, and that was that.

Just another chapter in Oakland's nightmare run in the Horizon League tournament.

"I told them in the locker room, I feel really bad for them. I feel bad for our students, our fans, that it has to come to an end," Kampe said in his opening postgame remarks, following the Horizon League semifinal, shortly before midnight Monday.

"We really became a good basketball team, a team nobody expected to do anything.

"This group grew as good as any group I've ever coached, and I just hate to see it end. Especially, that way."

The record book will say that Oakland finished the season 16-17, Kampe's first losing season since 2014-15, when the Golden Grizzlies also finished 16-17.

But the finish was awfully encouraging for a team that began the season getting humbled night after night in nonconference play — with three losses to Mid-American Conference foes, as well as defeats at bigger boys like Michigan State, Xavier and Georgia. Conference play brought its struggles, too, and relatively late into the season, Oakland still was trying to make sure it secured one of the eight postseason spots.

A four-game winning streak to close the regular season not only got the Golden Grizzlies in, but got them a first-round home game.

They extended the winning streak to five with a quarterfinal win over Youngstown State — followed by the near-stunner at Northern Kentucky in a game that saw Oakland showcase its depth when it raced to a big early lead, and then its youth and inexperience, as the Golden Grizzlies fell apart for lengthy stretches in both halves.

They turned a nine-point deficit into a two-point lead over a four-minute stretch late, thanks to two 3's by Jaevin Cumberland and one by Tray Maddox, and then two free throws by Cumberland to make it 63-61 with less than 10 seconds remaining. Before McDonald broke their hearts.

"Between our first game playing together to now, this team has made a lot of steps," said red-shirt junior forward Xavier Hill-Mais, who red-shirted last season and didn't miss a beat this year, earning first-team All-Horizon League honors. "I'm very proud of this team and how far we've come.

"It just shows, it's a testament to how much we can learn and how much we were willing to buy into each other."

It also should be a heck of a springboard moving forward into next season, when the Golden Grizzlies should be a heavy preseason favorite.

This year's team finished with no seniors, after Eastern Michigan graduate transfer Jordan Nobles was suspended in December. Hill-Mais, forward Brad Brechting and Cumberland were redshirt juniors and, barring graduate transfers, will return. Brechting made huge strides, and Cumberland emerged as one of the sharpest shooters in the conference.

Then there's point guard Braden Norris, who took over the full-time gig early in his freshman season (after Brailen Neely left) and impressed with his lethal accuracy from 3, and ball control beyond his years. Maddox, also a freshman, took a little longer to make his mark, but by the end, the standout from Novi had Kampe raving.

Also breaking through was guard Karmari Newman, a redshirt sophomore. He had an off-game Monday, but had so many good games this season. Continued improvement should be expected from him, as well as sophomore forward James Beck.

Committed for the Class of 2019 are Tennessee standout C.J. Gettelfinger and Florida prep-school point guard Emmanuel Newsome.

The future is bright. Of course, Kampe shrugged off suggestions that his program his bound for a rebound. Rebound from what, he asked?

"When hasn't Oakland been good? Everyone expected us to not be good this year. ESPN didn't even put us on this year. I called the league office (about that), shouldn't we have a bad year before somebody says we're not going to be very good?" said Kampe, whose team has four top-three finishes in six years in the Horizon League, albeit no NCAA Tournament appearances since 2010-11. "Tell me when we haven't been good.

"The program is always good, always has been and always will be."


Twitter: @tonypaul1984