State hoops: In battle of Horizon unbeatens, 'it's time' for Oakland to see where it's at

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

On March 9 in Indianapolis, the Cleveland State men's basketball team celebrated well into the night on the floor of the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, having secured a bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Off to the side stood two Oakland players, Jalen Moore and Micah Parrish.

The two Golden Grizzlies couldn't look away following the 80-69 loss in the Horizon League title game.

Oakland forward Micah Parrish (3) and guard Jalen Moore watched as Cleveland State celebrates the Horizon League title last season.

"I just had to look at how happy they were," Parrish, a redshirt freshman forward, told Neal Ruhl during this week's Oakland basketball radio show. "I felt like that should've been us.

"That basically just gave me motivation this whole summer time."

Oakland (11-4, 5-0 Horizon League) finally gets another crack at Cleveland State (10-3, 6-0) on Thursday night on the road. And while an NCAA Tournament bid won't be on the line (not yet), the game still has significant stakes, featuring two of the three remaining unbeaten teams in Horizon League.

The third unbeaten, Detroit Mercy (5-7, 3-0), plays at Cleveland State on Saturday.

Cleveland State beat Oakland three times last season, by an average of seven points. All the games were well within striking distance for the Golden Grizzlies, but as the Vikings have done much of this season and last, they found a way to finish the job at the end — with some fine skill on the court, but also a healthy dosage of luck along the way.

In poker terms, Cleveland State is a luckbox, habitually finding one-, two- and three-outers on the river.

"My dad taught me," said Oakland head coach Greg Kampe, "that you make your own luck."

For Oakland, Thursday night's game marks the toughest opponent since they were traveling the country playing some tough-as-nails nonconference foes. 

The Golden Grizzlies have cruised through league play, leading by at least 20 points in all five wins, thanks to a "core four" of Parrish, his fellow freshman Trey Townsend, and two candidates for Horizon League player of the year, Jamal Cain and Jalen Moore.

Cain, who's 12th in the nation at 20.9 points per game, and Moore, first in the nation at 8.4 assists per game, lead the way offensively. Parrish is the leading candidate for the league's defensive player of the year, for an Oakland team whose zone is causing significant headaches on the other side. Townsend does everything.

Cleveland State doesn't do anything remarkably well — its 85th in scoring offense, and 200th in scoring defense — but has found some magic under third-year coach Dennis Gates. Its last four conference wins have come by an average of less than six points, sandwiched around a string of game cancellations. Last year, the Vikings went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. The Golden Grizzlies are looking for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011.

A win Thursday would be a good first step. The top four seeds in the Horizon League regular season (based on winning percentage; there will be unbalanced schedules because of COVID-19 cancellations) receive a bye, and get to host a game before the tournament shifts to Indy for the semifinals and finals.

"It's time," Kampe, whose team won at Oklahoma State while Cleveland State lost at Oklahoma State in overtime, said on his radio show this week. "Let's go see what we are.

"That game's going to define where we're at."

Same for Cleveland State, which recognizes the game's significance and is looking to juice the home-court atmosphere. Gates and athletic director Harlan Sands purchased 500 general-admission tickets for the students, available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The last time these teams met, there were no fans in the stands. Just a whole lot of confetti on the court.

And Oakland hasn't forgotten — nor have they failed to notice that, this week, ESPN's bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, gave the Horizon League's default spot to Cleveland State.

"We should've been playing Houston" in the NCAA Tournament last year, Parrish said.

"I just kept that in the back of my head. I kept a mental note."

Titan effort

The symptoms weren't the toughest part of the COVID experience for Detroit Mercy's Antoine Davis. He had a little congestion, and not much else, during his recent bout with the coronavirus.

Rather, it was Davis' inability to get into the gym that drove him nuts.

He's the ultimate gym rat — which, during last week's nationally televised game against Milwaukee, brought to light an epic trip to the gym this summer. In one 3-minute-and-27-second session at Calihan Hall, Davis made 103 consecutive 3-pointers. He averaged a 3 every 2 seconds, moving all around the arc.

Davis finally missed on shot No. 104.

"I was mad," he said on the ESPN broadcast following the Titans' 85-60 win over Milwaukee on Friday. "I can't say what I said, but I was mad."

Most people wouldn't believe you if you said you made 103 consecutive 3-pointers, but Detroit Mercy head coach Mike Davis has the proof. It's on tape, I've seen it, and it's a thing of absolute beauty.

Davis has never been shy about shooting the 3, but perhaps it's no coincidence that he's making nearly 42% of his 3-point attempts this season — the best mark of his four-year career at Detroit Mercy. Davis' previous best was 38%, recorded as a freshman.

He made a season-best eight 3-pointers against Milwaukee, when Detroit Mercy made a program-record-tying 18 for the game. Davis made his first six attempts en route to setting the school's career scoring record.

Davis scored 39 for the game, despite playing a season-low 31 minutes. He took some occasional breaks to address some bouts of cramping that he attributed to a 19-day layoff necessitated by COVID cancellations. He sat the last few minutes when the game was well in hand, playing the role of cheerleader.

"It's not just about me," said Davis, who's second in the nation in scoring at 23.6 points a game, and was the Horizon League player of the week.

Slam dunks

►Last week was Rivalry Week, at least for men's hoops in the state of Michigan. And it was quite the bust, with Wednesday's Oakland-Detroit Mercy game and Saturday's Michigan State-Michigan and Western Michigan-Central Michigan games all canceled by COVID-19.

The Big Ten hopes to make up the MSU-UM game, and the Mid-American Conference will try to do the same with WMU-CMU. But don't count on a makeup between Oakland and Detroit Mercy. There are scheduling complications, with the best possible date not an option because it would force Oakland into five consecutive road games — a no-no, according to Horizon League rules. The only way the game gets rescheduled, it seems, is if both teams find themselves with an open date because of COVID cancellations. In that scenario, it would be a last-minute decision. Otherwise, they'll play Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 13, at Oakland, and perhaps in the Horizon League tournament.

Detroit Mercy canceled three consecutive games because of a COVID-19 outbreak. It had the personnel to play the Oakland game, but it hadn't practiced in multiple days. It'll be a no-contest if it's not made up.

► Green Bay also had to cancel on both Oakland and Detroit Mercy men last week, because of COVID. Kampe quickly lined up a game against Ohio Christian, compensating the Division II school with $3,000 and pizza for the traveling party. Kampe also acknowledged on his radio show this week that he has explored finding another game, ideally a "buy" road game, because of the Detroit Mercy cancellation. Dates didn't work for inquiries with Kansas and Minnesota, and Ohio State chose to book IUPUI instead — perhaps because IUPUI isn't the threat to win the game that Oakland would be. Kampe continues to look for a game.

► We finally got a rivalry game Tuesday, when Central Michigan visited Eastern Michigan in men's hoops, in what should've been a battle of first-year coaches — EMU's Stan Heath and CMU's Tony Barbee. But Barbee was out with COVID-19, as were several players. In fact, the Chippewas traveled with just the minimum seven scholarship players, plus two walk-ons. The Eagles won, 99-68, with 11 players scoring.

► The Oakland women actually played their last game with just six available players — and won, beating Purdue-Fort Wayne, 63-60, on the road Thursday, without their best player, guard Kahlaijah DeanKendall Folley played 39 minutes and had 12 points, four assists and five rebounds in earning Horizon League freshman of the week honors.

► The Michigan men, which reached a No. 4 ranking early in the season, have now fallen out of the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN's bracketology. Lunardi on Wednesday had the Wolverines among his first four teams out. Michigan hasn't won since Dec. 18, with two losses and three cancellations during that span.

► Kampe announced this week that Oakland will honor Kendrick Nunn during the Friday, Feb. 18 home game against Wright State. A banner will be raised to the rafters in honor of Nunn, who was among the top NBA rookies in 2019-20 and now plays for the Lakers. Nunn plans to be in attendance for the ceremony.

State power rankings

MEN

1. Michigan State (13-2)

2. Oakland (11-4)

3. Michigan (7-6)

4. Detroit Mercy (5-7)

5. Eastern Michigan (7-7)

6. Central Michigan (2-12)

7. Western Michigan (4-11)

WOMEN

1. Michigan (13-2)

2. Michigan State (8-7)

3. Oakland (6-7)

4. Western Michigan (8-4)

5. Eastern Michigan (4-5)

6. Central Michigan (3-10)

7. Detroit Mercy (0-12)

Games of the week

MEN

► Oakland at Cleveland State, 7 Thursday (ESPN+)

► Michigan at Illinois, 9 Friday (FS1)

► Northwestern at Michigan State, noon Saturday (BTN)

► Detroit Mercy at Cleveland State, 3:30 Saturday (ESPN+)

► Ohio at Central Michigan, 4:30 Saturday (ESPN+)

WOMEN

► Michigan at Penn State, 8 Thursday (BTN)

► Northern Kentucky at Oakland, 2 Saturday (ESPN+)

► Western Michigan at Buffalo, 2 Saturday (ESPN+)

► Northwestern at Michigan State, 2 Sunday (BTN+)

► Michigan at Maryland, 5 Sunday (ESPN)

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984