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Best player on Little Caesars Arena court Tuesday might not have played for Michigan State

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — There's one player on the Oakland men's basketball roster who had experienced the type of rowdy, loud crowd that took in Tuesday night's game at Little Caesars Arena.

That was Jamal Cain, and it showed that he'd been there before.

Oakland's Jamal Cain puts up a shot over Michigan State's Max Christie

Cain was arguably the best player on the floor, on either team, pouring in contested shot after contested shot and finishing with 20 points as the Golden Grizzlies were gritty but ultimately outmanned by No. 11 Michigan State, 90-78, in the 20th meeting between the friendly rivals.

"Jamal is a pro. Jamal's gonna get drafted," Oakland head coach Greg Kampe said. "He's a pro in our league, a pro's going to do really well."

Back when Kendrick Nunn was about to leave Oakland in 2018, Kampe texted more than a dozen NBA executives, pumping up Nunn's case to be taken in the NBA Draft. Nunn, the 2018 Horizon League player of the year, ultimately went undrafted, and went on to compete for NBA rookie of the year, before he landed on the 2020 NBA All-Rookie Team.

Several of those NBA executives have acknowledged they whiffed on Nunn.

Kampe has given them a chance to make amends.

He has told them, "If I was right on him, I've got the next one I'm gonna be right on."

Cain, 22, a Pontiac native who played three seasons at Detroit's Cornerstone Health and Technology School, spent four seasons playing for Marquette in the Big East — he was teammates with Joey Hauser, before Hauser transferred Michigan State.

Cain wanted to come home for his final basketball season, and had known Kampe from the high-school days, and so he transferred to Oakland, knowing in this day and age, it doesn't matter where you play, it matters how you play. If you play at an elite level, the NBA will find you. Kampe has a list of alums as proof.

The NBA won't have a hard time finding Cain, who, in his first 11 games with Oakland, has been one of the best players in the country. He's averaging 21.1 points a game, good for eighth in the country, and 10.1 rebounds, good for 14th. He's top-25 in seven categories.

Cain has had at least 14 points and six rebounds in each of Oakland's games.

"He's a good player," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "I recruited him, another probably recruiting mistake of mine. He's a good player, a good demeanor about him.

"He's a competitor."

Tuesday was a big test for Oakland, and a big one for Cain, too — and Michigan State made life hard on him, particularly his old Marquette mate, Hauser, who drew the Cain defensive assignment most of the night. And Cain didn't get many open looks at all. 

No matter. He was 7-for-14 shooting, including 3-for-5 from 3-point range.

He made back-to-back 3-pointers late in the first half as Oakland pulled within 36-35, before a disastrous, five-turnover stretch led to a nine-point deficit, 44-35, at halftime.

"Knew it was gonna be a challenge," said Cain, who added six rebounds, two assists and a block.

"That showed here tonight."

Cain has been, arguably, Oakland's best player every game this year. He scored 15 in the season-opening loss at West Virginia, then had 14 and 12 rebounds in the follow-up game, a win, at Oklahoma State.

Cain, 6-foot-7 and 191 pounds, had his best game at Alabama, when he scored 31 and had 10 rebounds.

At one point, he had four straight double-doubles, and has five on the season.

He stands out on the floor against the best talent in the nation — imagine what he'll do in Horizon League play, which resumes for Oakland on Dec. 30 at Robert Morris. The question will be if there's enough around Cain. Oakland has a "Core Four" in Cain, junior guard Jalen Moore (25 points, 11 assists against MSU) and redshirt freshman forwards Trey Townsend (14 points) and Micah Parrish (19 points), who, between them, sat one whole minute Tuesday. They scored all 78 of Oakland's points.

Depth might've caught up to the Golden Grizzlies against Michigan State, though Kampe isn't concerned going forward — not when you have a player like Cain front and center — nor is worried about the minutes.

"For us, my big four are gonna play," said Kampe, who acknowledged he'll need more from the likes of junior guard Blake Lampman and freshman forward Osei Price moving forward (junior guard Zion Young would be in that mix, but he has chronic knee issues that could limit his impact for the rest of his career). "If you're 18 to 22 years old and you've got a media timeout for 2.5 minutes every 4 minutes and you can't play 40 minutes, then I've done a terrible job getting you in shape."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984