Despite ragged starts, COVID-19 issues, Oakland, Detroit Mercy claw back

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

In the first game of the season, Oakland's men's basketball team trailed Xavier, 53-12, and eventually lost, 101-49. After nine games, Oakland was 0-9.

Through seven games, Detroit Mercy was 1-6, and 0-4 in the Horizon League.

Oakland head coach Greg Kampe.

Now, with one weekend of regular-season play remaining, the Metro Detroit rivals are battling for position for a first-round bye in the Horizon League tournament. It's been quite the revival for both programs, which have navigated through the COVID-19 landmines as best they could.

The top four teams get first-round byes, and at least one guaranteed tournament home game. According to the latest projections, Oakland (9-16, 9-9) is the No. 3 seed, and Detroit Mercy (9-9, 8-6) is the No. 6 seed. Seedings are being done by a complex formula, given all the game cancellations, factoring in strength of schedule, road victories, and opponents' winning percentage. That's why Oakland trumps Detroit Mercy.

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"It would be huge," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said of the potential bye, given his team had practiced three times before its season opener at Xavier, and then lost all of its nonleague games, after being shut down for two weeks before the season because of a COVID-19 outbreak among staff and players. "Just from the mental side of it, and how proud you can be of a group of kids starting 0-9.

"That's validation of hard work, and not quitting when you're 0-9. Just trusting the process and getting better, and now they have one weekend to prove themselves."

Oakland will travel to Milwaukee (7-10, 6-9) for the final weekend series, which gives Oakland 12 road games to eight at home.

The Golden Grizzlies could be in even better position if not for a few rough finishes. In their first league series, it lost the opener to UIC, despite having a double-digit lead with about five minutes left. A month ago at Green Bay, it lost a game despite being ahead by four with about 30 seconds left. On Friday at Robert Morris — playing without star AJ Bramah, who announced earlier in the day he is transferring — Oakland lost in double-overtime, despite being up five with about 90 seconds left.

Then there was Feb. 6 home game against league-leading Cleveland State. Down two with 2 seconds left, Oakland ran a play perfectly under the basket and got the tying layup. But a referee started the clock early, and the play was nullified. Oakland couldn't repeat, and the game was lost. The Horizon League investigated the incident, but declined comment on any repercussions for the official.

And, yet, here anyway is Oakland, in position for that bye.

"Like I told them, that's what all losing programs do, talk about what they could've been," Kampe said of a team that has scoring weapons galore, including standout freshmen, among them Horizon League freshman of the week Micah Parrish, who averaged 16.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals in the weekend split. "Let's not even talk about that stuff. Let's get people talking about the wins."

While Oakland steadily righted its ship, Detroit Mercy has come on strong, with wins in seven of its last nine games. The Titans' six-game winning streak was snapped Saturday night by Cleveland State.

Detroit Mercy's season has been much more impacted by COVID-19 than Oakland's, with its season-opening appearance at a multi-team tournament (MTE) at Kentucky wiped away, plus three conference series that were nixed by COVID-19 issues.

One of those series was replaced by a last-minute series with Oakland. The rivals met four teams, with Oakland winning the first three and Detroit Mercy the last one.

Neither coach liked the scheduling of a second rivalry series — and now, should the current seeding hold and chips fall in line, they could meet a fifth time in the second round of the Horizon League tournament.

"That'd be good," Detroit Mercy coach Mike Davis said. "I've gotten over that.

"We beat them."

The Titans won the opener at Cleveland State, led by Antoine Davis' 35 points and Noah Waterman's three 3-pointers down the stretch, and then raced out to a big start on Saturday, but ultimately fell to snap the skid. Detroit Mercy was without Davis' backcourt mate, Marquell Fraser, in the second game with an ankle injury, and that proved big.

This weekend, Detroit Mercy hosts Robert Morris (4-12, 3-10). That will give the Titans 10 home games, to six on the road. They also will only have played seven of the 11 league opponents.

That's why the seeding is what it is, with Oakland ahead of Detroit Mercy. For now.

"You know, with this formula, who knows," said Davis, whose team hasn't been hit by the COVID-19 virus, as much as it has contact tracing this year. "I don't know what they're doing. It's big for us to just get better going into the tournament next week.

"Where we were, because of lack of practice, I'm proud they overcame the 0-4 start. Sometimes an 0-4 start can mess up your mind set, even though you know you can be pretty good. That 0-4 can put doubt in your mind, and I'm proud they've come together."

The Oakland women (11-10, 11-7) are currently the No. 4 seed entering the final weekend at home against Northern Kentucky (6-9, 6-4).

The Detroit Mercy women's season has been shut down amid allegations of mental and verbal abuse by first-year head coach AnnMarie Gilbert.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984