Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Student Section Chronicles: IPFW

Since IPFW entered The Summit League three seasons ago, they have won some and lost some. Pertpetual .500-huggers, the Mastodons have neither amazed or embarrassed. For a school with very little basketball history and a program still in its first decade of Division I existence, this should be looked upon as an accomplishment. By all means, IPFW has been a solid addition to The Summit League. Over the past three seasons, coach Dane Fife has brought stability to the team's roster and respectability to an institution often frowned upon because of its alphabet soup-inspired name. Most importantly, the Dons have improved every year on thecourt. And that is a trend which will surely continue.

Not only are these positive developments for the conference, but also for Oakland University. Due to The Summit League's unusual geography, Oakland does not have any rivalries born out of close proximity. IPFW is as close as it gets, something The People With Pockets have recognized as OU has sent many buses full of students to Fort Wayne for the annual OU-IPFW match-up at The Coliseum. Seeing The Blue Crew go at it against The Grizz Gang is the type of sight one would normally only see at conference tournaments, yet it comes to fruition each year in the middle of the conference schedule. The two fan sections likely despise one another on those occasions, but as we find out in the following interview, they actually have a lot more in common than might be expected. Ron Clark, who advises The Blue Crew organization, was kind enough to field our questions.

Name of the student section: The Blue Crew

Does your student section require/recommend a certain shirt (or shirt color) be worn?

We do ask students to wear their official Blue Crew T-shirt yes, but not required unless it is a special promotion. Additionally, we draw one Blue Crew Member to have a suite at an upcoming game. I have a friend who owns the suite and he donates it to us for about 4 games per year, so we do that as an incentive to get students there. We put up the sign, give them a freebie backpack and food. We try to pick double-header games so we can do two groups.

How long has The Blue Crew existed in its current state?

This is the second year.

How are tickets allocated for students in the student section?

We have a list of members. Student tickets are free. When they arrive they indicate they are students and in the Blue Crew and they get a ticket for that section.

Where are you located at in the arena, and what is your favorite part about such placement?

Location is by the Pep Band and Cheerleaders on the end of the court, near the visiting team. (Ed Note: This is an area OU fans who have been to the IPFW roadtrips will surely remember. The back-and-forth banter between the IPFW students and OU students takes on a life of its own at this game.)

What are the two to three biggest games for your student section each year?

It depends. Michigan State and Notre Dame are always big, and the Oakland or IUPUI series.

What struggles does your student section face every year?

Consistent attendance. We play off campus, and although we have a shuttle service that takes students to and from the games every 15 minutes, students still are not engaging, unless it is a special promotion or game.

Describe your most original chant, or a memory of a particular experience in the student section?

We took about 55 students down to IUPUI when we played them at Conseco Fieldhouse. Their students were a bit rude so our kids basically took their chants and made them their own and completely drowned out their student section. It was a great game and our students were really involved all through the overtimes.

Do the students at your school have any unique rituals performed before big games? Or do you have a specific experience to share if it is not something customarily done?

We are working on getting them to create their own unique rituals, not forced, so they will feel more involved.

- Many thanks to Ron Clark for taking the time to provide answers for this Q&A. Our next installment will arrive in the coming days.

Other reports from the Student Section Chronicles:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Student Section Chronicles: North Dakota State

If there is anything we learned from North Dakota State's magical run to the NCAA Tournament in 2009-2010, it was that they had incredible fans. For me, the lasting images of that season were of the droves of Bison fans who supported their men's basketball team. While the Oakland fan in me cringes at the sight of hundreds of fans rushing the court after Ben Woodside's conference championship clinching shot, the Summit League fan in me was happy to see the league represented so well on national television. People around the country were infected with Bison Fever, as replays of green and yellow-clad fans hoisting Woodside played on television and the web leading up to the beginning of the Round of 64. Then, NDSU was awarded a first round game against Kansas in Minneapolis where over 10,000 members of Bison Nation gave the team an imposing home-court advantage. While they lost that game, we learned once and for all that this was a school with the support of an entire state.

I have long-respected the Bison fans, especially after showing their dedication and loyalty in 2009. My desire to learn more about the NDSU fanbase is one part of the inspiration behind this feature, The Student Section Chronicles. For this installment, I caught up with TheBisonator (BN) and NorthSide (NS), two members of NDSU's fan forum, Bisonville. They have each provided a quality look into what the student section in Fargo is all about.

Name of the student section: The Herd.

Does your student section require/recommend a certain shirt (or shirt color) be worn?

Yellow, with some exceptions. In 2007 we did wear green when we played football at the University of Minnesota because the Minnesota student section is yellow also. (NS)

Describe the history of your student section. How long has it existed in its current state?

There used to be a group called the "Bison Brigade," but that faded away by the mid-2000's. From 2004-2006 a lot of the section was me and some football players, and it could get pretty rowdy. In 2007-2009 it involved me and a usually quiet, stoned student section filled with kids who were just there to be a warm body. Now it is known as "The Herd." (BN)

How are tickets allocated for students in the student section?

Students get in free with student ID. Their activity fee pays for the cost of a ticket. (BN)

Where are you located at in the arena, and what is your favorite part about such placement?

The student section for basketball is located on the whole side of the court where both away and home teams are. Personally, I usually get a seat behind one of the benches. Gotta love hearing the coaches screaming during the game, and make the refs and away team know you are there! (NS)

What are the two to three biggest games for your student section each year?

We were playing a transition schedule from 2004 to 2007, so there weren't many teams that came regularly during that period. I can tell you that the most intense game was when Kansas State came to town in December 2006 (when we crammed 6,000 fans into our arena for that one). Second most was probably Colorado State in December 2007 (during winter break, yet a good 600-700 students showed up). In the past three seasons we have been in the Summit, I can say the top three in-conference games each year are Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Oakland. (BN)

What struggles does your student section face currently?

From 2008-2009, I was literally one of only maybe 4 or 5 students who would come to every single game and cheer their asses off. I remember a game against IUPUI in 2008 where I was yelling and clapping and begging the student section to get on their feet and make some damn noise, cause we were down by 10 at one point and trying to make a comeback. I was literally a single soul standing and cheering my ass off, and everyone else was just sitting there looking sick, or something. Last year, there started to be a large influx of (I believe freshmen) who came to most games and were rowdy. I graduated this past year, so I have to trust those kids. (BN)

Over winter break everyone leaves to go home. I have been one of the few that is still in the stands over break. (NS)

Describe your most original chant, or a memory of a particular experience in the student section.

At the game against Kansas State when we all made fun of Bob Huggins for his DUI the whole game. Also, at a women's game against South Dakota State in 2004 when we scored the final winning shot at the buzzer, and me and the football players were jumping on the first row of the wooden bleachers, and we broke them! (BN)

I can't think of many really good ones off the top of my head, but one of the players of SUU looks just like McLovin from Superbad. He isn't on the team anymore, but it was pretty funny calling him McLovin! Its all for fun! I am not a fan that swears at the refs or players but I will give them a hard time every once and while to get into their heads. (NS)

Do the students at your school have any unique rituals performed before big games? Or do you have a specific experience to share if it is not something customarily done?

I can't think of anything that NDSU does that no other school doesn't do. We use a similar hand gesture to the Texas long horns hodling it upward during the national anthem, and at the end some students say "and the home of the BISON!" (NS)

Why do you ultimately choose to be a part of the student section at your school?

I loved college basketball, and I was proud to be a member of a school that featured competitive Division I basketball. Also, the winters in Fargo can be brutal, and this was one way for me to forget about them. (BN)

NDSU has a great athletic program and is very competitive is all sports. We have won the Summit League in softball, volleyball, track, and basketball, along with great personal performances in track and golf. (NS)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Four-Year Player, The NBA Draft, And How It Looks For Benson in 2011

When Keith Benson declared early for the draft this spring, it was a bittersweet moment for Oakland University fans. If Benson were to be drafted, it would be a huge win for the program. At the same time, losing the reigning Summit League Player of the Year would no doubt leave a big hole in the Golden Grizzlies' front-court. A thumb injury made it impossible for Benson to participate in some of the pre-entry deadline workouts, meaning he would not be able to receive enough immediate feedback to make a sound decision about whether to stay in or out of the draft. Due to these circumstances, Benson announced he'd return to school for his senior season, poised to defend his conference honors.

But what will happen to his draft stock for 2011? There were scouts at many a Oakland University game this year to see Benson, who impressed with big-time performances against elite teams all year. However, the 2010 draft field included a wealth of big men with similar profiles, ignoring conference affiliation, as Benson. Larry Sanders, who is a long and athletic post player coming out a year early from VCU, benefited the most by going 15th to the Milwaukee Bucks. Craig Brackins, a highly-touted post from Iowa State, was also picked in the first-round. Aside from those two names, other long, athletic, shot-blocking centers often grouped with Benson (Hassan Whiteside, Jarvis Varnado, Jerome Jordan, Soloman Alabi) were all taken in the second round. Of these players, only two were seniors - Varnado and Jordan - which points to the growing trend where NBA teams draft more on potential than producticity over the course of a four-year college career.

For the past few drafts, specifically, seniors have been falling further down draft boards than ever before. This year's version saw Trevor Booker go at #23, the longest it has ever taken for the first senior to hear his name called. While the end of the first round was more kind to seniors than the first 20 or so picks, this is no doubt a trend to be worried about when it comes to Benson's first-round potential next year. The key for any player is to be a first-round pick because then a contract is all but guaranteed. Fall to the second round and there are no sure things, meaning great college players like Varnado and Jordan may not ever see an NBA court, despite hearing their names called on draft night. At this point - and it is early - it seems unlikely that Benson would go undrafted in 2011, given how the already-mentioned similar players and seniors fared this year. He's got too much talent and size to be where Brian Zoubek and Omar Samhan were on Thursday night. But to get a first-round guarantee, he'll have to continue to prove he has the skill, motor, and strength to be mentioned amongst the first 30 picks.

What is clear at this point is that there won't be as many big men to choose from in 2011. Soon-to-be-freshmen Perry Jones, Jared Sullinger, and Enes Kanter are lottery locks if they come out early, and Jonathan Givony and Gary Parrish even have a guy like John Henson (6-10, 200 pounds) as a top-30 prospect. I guarantee Benson will post better and bigger numbers and display more intensity than Henson next year, but Henson has the all-important "upside" that NBA scouts love so much. Aside from these possible early-entrants, the rest of the crop is rather slim, JaJuan Johnson (Purdue) and Kenneth Faried (Morehead State) leading the bunch. Both explored going out early this year but ultimately chose to return for their senior seasons. Benson is a better fit at center in the NBA than any of these players who may play the "5" in college but are being scouted as power forwards. And Benson has the skills to be more than just a back-to-the-basket center. His ability to impress scouts paired with slim pickings at his position bode well for Mr. Benson in 2011.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Student Section Chronicles

In keeping with the general theme of investigating matters conference wide, we'll soon be starting a new series of posts about the various student sections in The Summit League. Student sections are a sacred area in college hoops arenas across the country. They are home to die-hard fans who put much effort into giving their team the best home-court advantage possible. Our conference, like most at this level, has struggles with student attendance and participation, but that doesn't mean there aren't those who spend every moment of every game on their feet chanting for their team and deriding the other.
We've done our best to track down student representatives from all of The Summit League schools, and where current students were unavailable, recent alums or employees have stepped in. Still, we may not have reports from all 10 schools, but a solid majority should be represented by the time all the posts are churned out. We hope what follows is a close-up look at the entities which make college basketball games fun events for students to attend every season.

The first post will debut shortly, with new entries coming every few days or so. We'll wrap it up with a follow-up post at the end to look for similarities or noteworthy items amongst them all.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Breaking Down The APR

In 2005 the NCAA established the Academic Progress Rate, or APR, to measure a university's success rate in retaining and keeping eligible its student-athletes. Scores are released for every team at every university, and they are based on a rating of up to 1000 averaged over a four-year period of time. The NCAA's benchmark for success is 925, meaning any score below this number is grounds for penalties. Since it is a relatively new system and four-year averages are being accumulated for the first time, penalty precedents are just now being established.

Fortunately for fans of Oakland basketball, there is nothing to worry about as the Golden Grizzlies have thus far been securely above 925. The new data was recently released, figuring in the 2008-2009 year into the four-year average. The Oakland University men's basketball team had a four-year APR of 962, while the single-year APR for 2008-2009 was a resounding 981.

So what exactly does this mean? Well, the APR is a rather simple measurement. Essentially, a team can receive up to 2 points per scholarship player per semester. One point is achieved if the player is academically eligible for the next semester, and another if the player returns for that semester (or graduates). Last season, for example, the men's team would have received four points total for Erik Kangas since he stayed eligible in both semesters, returned, and eventually graduated. Since Kangas was just one of 13 scholarship players on the team, a little math will reveal how many points are possible for the entire team:
13 scholarships x 2 points x 2 semesters = 52 points
Using this total, we can find the details in the 2008-2009 APR for the Oakland's men's basketball team. As seen in the table to the right, OU's 981 is actually only a single point shy of a perfect score. The lone detriment was the transfer of Matt Samuels. Since Samuels did not return to Oakland for the following semester, he only earned one point of a possible two for the winter semester. This is the only possible scenario I could work out for the missing point, which means that all 13 scholarship players stayed academically eligible in each semester for the 2008-2009 year.

The other case where a player would not earn a point is if he left early for the NBA Draft. For the longest time, most probably would not have envisioned this hurting Oakland, but it could have been a distinct possibility for next year's APR had Keith Benson stayed in the draft as an early-entrant. Since he was a redshirt on track to graduate, I am unsure of how this would have affected OU's APR. But it does begin to bring about the question of flaws with this measurement.

The most glaring weakness in the APR is that it penalizes a school if a player transfers out of the program. Players transfer for a number of reasons - sometimes over playing time, sometimes due to a bad fit - but it should not play a role in determining whether a team is meeting academic goals. Yet, the rule exists and does not appear to be going away anytime soon, so OU fans can expect the APR to be below 1000 each year given the program's tendency to have at least one transfer every year. Next year, for example, the APR may be 981 again because of the transfer of Jay Thames (and assuming the rest of the team stays academically eligible).

As for using the APR to compare institutions, there is yet another major concern. The NCAA does not set universal standards for determining eligibility; therefore, a player who earns a point at X university for staying eligible may not have been worthy at university Y. As a result, attempting to compare academic success based on this measure would be difficult to do accurately. However, the APR can be used to compare stability, where stability is a measure of how well a program has been retaining its players. (Note: The NCAA does not make available how each point was accumulated, so we have no way of telling if points went unearned because of ineligibility versus retention. But with a little deduction and other knowledge of the programs, a general picture can be painted).

Stability is something many fans have hoped to achieve in The Summit League, where universities have come and gone as often as coaches and players. The four-year APR average is not pretty, either. Four programs were under the 925 satisfactory level, and two were well under 900. Together, these totals bring The Summit League average to a paltry 929. Things are looking up, however, as most programs have posted improvements for 2008-2009 alone where the 10-team average was 949. Oakland's 981 is second only to Western Illinois' perfect 1000. Here are the full results:

By comparison, the Horizon League posted a four-year average of 956, and not a single program was below 925. Clearly, the Horizon League has achieved the kind of stability - not to mention on-the-court success - that should be envied by programs in The Summit League. Other thoughts, in bullet form:
  • When Jim Molinari took over the Western Illinois program, many thought he would bring to life the perpetually weak basketball team. While the Leathernecks have continued to have their fair share of troubles on-the-court, it is clear Molinari is building his program the right way. An APR of 1000 means he did not lose a single player, nor were any of them failing in the classroom. Expect further improvement by the folks from The Other Macomb.
  • NDSU and SDSU show again why they have been such solid additions to this league by posting very respectable APRs.
  • Dane Fife seems to be doing a solid job in Fort Wayne. If he sticks there, his program will surely break out of the .500 funk they've been in for quite awhile. If he leaves for greener pastures (which seems to come up a lot these days), the IPFW program would probably lose much of the stability it has found under Fife.
  • Oral Roberts and IUPUI are interesting studies. ORU has always had its fair share of impact juco transfers, and the APR reveals perhaps one of the reasons why is because it loses a few transfers itself every year. IUPUI, on the other hand, looks to be in shambles. This is not surprising considering some of the recent penalties they have faced. It would be great if one of the League's best programs on-the-court could find some stability off of it, though.
  • UMKC's 2008-2009 APR is no surprise. Typically schools will suffer a bit in this measurement when coaching changes occur, but it is unreal how unstable the program has been even three years after Matt Brown took over. Do not expect improvements in the UMKC APR next season as three more players recently left the program.
  • What is going on at Southern Utah? What exactly are they doing for The Summit League? I typically try to remain impartial or at least positive here, but can we please boot them from the conference already?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Looking At Basketball Revenues

All this talk of conference expansion as of late has been focused on one thing: money. In college athletics, much of the revenue universities take in comes from television contracts which are largely constructed around football. Basketball really doesn't mean much in this discussion, though money is certainly important when it comes to success on the court. Programs with large football revenues can funnel funds into other athletics, one of the reasons why the pigskin is such a prominent feature at schools above The Red Line. Schools below that famous line, those without booming football departments, have a proven disadvantage that transfers from ledgers to hardwood when playing those above.

But what about within their own conferences? Do larger budgets make for stronger programs, even when apparently on the same level? The answers to these questions can be partially answered thanks to a recent article from CNN which breaks down revenues and expenses from every Division I men's basketball program. Specifically, we'll take a look at programs in Oakland's conference, The Summit League. Before looking at the numbers, it's important to note one fault with them:
The comparison between basketball revenues and profits is interesting, but not precise. That's because schools have latitude in their filings with the Department of Education in whether they attribute some expenses and revenues to a specific sport or a more general classification for their entire athletic department.

Many schools use that latitude to have revenue and expenses for one sport equal one another rather than show a profit or a loss, a trick of accounting that wouldn't pass muster with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Despite the lack of a universal accounting method, the numbers are still revealing. Even ignoring the profit margins, one can obtain a general idea about the amount of money each school makes and spends on men's basketball (data sometimes hard to obtain across the board considering private institutions do not have to make public their financial information). Here is a look at the financial factors for the 10 Summit League programs:

What strikes me immediately about the information above is that Oakland University was the only school reporting a profit from men's basketball in the reporting year. While it is impossible to draw many conclusions from that considering how different departments handle their accounting, it is interesting nonetheless. It confirms the thought that OU's basketball program has done rather well for itself in recent years, especially when compared to some other programs (IUPUI, UMKC, SUU) reporting significant losses.

The data also gives us a general idea of how much money each team is bringing through revenues. Since actual budgets are difficult to obtain, this revenue data can give us a decent starting point for comparing program successes based on budgets (since budgets are estimated based off revenues). With that, here is a look at the amount of revenue each school took in compared to number of conference wins:

It would be challenging to make any definitive statements based on this graph. Generally, the schools generating close to or over $1 million had the most success in this year. UMKC is the one exception. Other thoughts, in bullet form.
  • UMKC is the most captivating case in this study. Not only did they generate more revenue than all schools but Oral Roberts, they also spent the second most (over $2 million) on men's basketball. There could be some odd reporting on the university's part, but what remains is an unpleasant picture: a program generating and spending close to $2 million and winning only 3 conference games as a result. UMKC has largely been a bottom-feeder in the Summit League the past few seasons, but it spends a significant amount on the sport which serves as an outlier to the common thought that more money wins more games.
  • NDSU operates at an incredibly efficient level. The books were balanced in this year, and they took home a conference championship. While the 2009-2010 numbers probably look a bit different, there is no doubt that NDSU brings to the conference a very solid model.
  • It is my hunch that ORU and Oakland will be near the top of the conference in dollars generated and spent every year. It's no coincidence, then, that they are also in a race for a conference championship every year. While money is not the only reason why they've been successful, their continued success has allowed them to expand their budgets which gives them an advantage over many peer institutions.
  • The group of teams in the middle seems about right, given their competition level in men's basketball over the years. IUPUI is worth noting as a school that lost a whole lot of money on the sport in 2008-2009. They don't make much on it, either, ranking dead last in revenues. Future data would be needed to see if this was a one-year abnormality or if the program truly lacks the financial support of others. If the latter is so, the university deserves props for fielding a competitive club year-in and year-out.
The Summit League is far from a financial powerhouse when it comes to basketball conferences, but there are many programs which have discovered the means to operate efficiently while staying competitive. Hopefully OU will continue to be a leader in the conference when it comes to embracing this model.

Oakland vs. Detroit Almost Happened

It's no secret that Oakland University's basketball schedule will feature five to six household names every year when it is released. Fans have become used to Coach Greg Kampe's scheduling philosophy, some happy with the opportunity to play big-time schools in big-time arenas, others disgruntled over the fact that these games always end in a loss. No matter how fans feel about that aspect of the non-conference schedule, many would agree that there is one team they would love to see year after year: the University of Detroit.

OU and Detroit have not met on the court for a men's game since the 2003-2004 season (a 60-76 loss at Calihan Hall). There hasn't been much in the way of an official reason as to why, but a little searching and it's easy to find out why fans from both sides believe the hiatus has occurred. No matter the case, it appeared as though the match-up would be resurrected this year with both teams fielding impressive line-ups. However, from the Washington Post, we learn the long-awaited return of OU v. Detroit has been sidelined again:
It all comes down to what coaches call self-preservation and the need to serve their own self-interests. Kampe, the Oakland coach, said his scheduling challenge is easier than most because "I don't care." After 26 seasons at the school and with strong job security, he tries to win the Summit League and schedules a who's who of power-conference teams in nonleague road games, record be damned. Next season's slate includes West Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, Purdue and Michigan State (at a neutral site).

But there are still issues. Kampe has had trouble scheduling Detroit. Finally, after Oakland center Keith Benson declared for the NBA draft, Detroit called and asked to start a series; Kampe agreed. The next week, Benson withdrew and the phone rang. It was Detroit, saying they have a scheduling conflict.

"That's the crap that happens," Kampe said.
While this report would have one believe Detroit canceled because of fear of playing a Benson-led Grizzlies team, it is impossible to prove, especially sans a statement from the Titans. Moreover, it's unfair to put the blame solely on Detroit here. The Titans clearly initiated this process, and while it is unfortunate that the game couldn't go ahead as planned, there could be a multitude of reasons why it ultimately got nixed. The least of which should be Benson, as Detroit returns double-double threat Eli Holman, a big man poised to break into All-Conference territory in the Horizon League this season. (And sadly squashes one of the match-ups we most wanted out of this season's schedule).

No, what we have here is yet another incident where two programs run into trouble when trying to plan a schedule. As the Washington Post article points out, it is incredibly tough to schedule at the mid-major level. As Oakland fans know, the result of such difficulty in this process results in a lot of guarantee games instead of matches against other quality programs at this level. Hopefully the communication which has occurred recently between Oakland and Detroit is a sign that the tides are turning in favor of a renewed series between the suburban and urban school. Such games would surely drive the competitive spirit of the respective fanbases, and perhaps the casual basketball fans of metro Detroit, too.

Aside from the Detroit news, we get further confirmation of several rumored match-ups from this article. Purdue and Michigan State have been confirmed for a few weeks now. Adding Illinois and an expected game against Michigan makes it four matches against Big 10 teams, which should do wonders for Oakland's RPI and strength of schedule considering how strong the conference is expected to be this season. Tennessee and West Virginia return solid squads coming off an Elite Eight and Final Four, respectively. While several integral pieces from those runs are gone, they should still be strong contenders and tough games for Oakland on the road. The schedule is shaping up nicely, and hopefully the finalized product will still yield a few surprises.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Golden Grizzlies Fan: Part III

For die-hard college basketball fans, every 40 minutes of basketball means something special when witnessed live. Each new game presents fans with the opportunity to see something amazing. A spectacular individual performance, a memorable dunk, or a game-winning shot is never out of the question on a given night, and it is a part of the reason why we love to attend sports events as much as we do. The ability to say "I was there when..." is much more alluring than "I watched when..."

But what if you could say, "I participated when..."? In this sport, there is one tradition that trumps witnessing all awe-inspiring performances or dunks or shots. It takes the experience from one of simply viewing and cheering to one of actually doing. It is the holy grail of college basketball fanaticism: storming the court. Storming the court has a long and storied history, its own set of rules, and those who attempt to protect the sanctity of the action. It is serious business.

For a school like Oakland University, the opportunity to rush the court does not come up very often. Using Storming The Floor's guidelines, you can quickly begin to see why:

- If your unranked team beats a top-10 opponent (Top-10 teams never play true road games at mid-majors like Oakland)
-If your lower-division school beats a D1 opponent. (Not a lower-division school)
-You beat your most hated rival in overtime, or on a last-second miracle shot. (Could happen any year with a home game against Oral Roberts, but close games in the past - including Johnathon Jones' Homecoming game heroics in 2010 - haven't prompted a court rushing)
-Your team breaks a long losing streak against a particularly difficult opponent. (Again, most of OU's losing streaks are to high-major schools which won't play true road games, and the Palace, where those teams often play the Grizzlies, doesn't allow storming)
-Your team wins the league tournament in a one-bid conference. (Ah, ha!)
-You become the first 16 seed to beat a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. (Not happening)
-If your school wins the NCAA tournament. (I'll never say never)

Even if one of these events were to occur, there is the added concern that a school needs fans in attendance for the court storming to come to life. For mid-majors, most of these events, if not all of them, are more likely to come on the road where the team may not have the fan presence necessary to storm. As if it were not difficult enough to be a fan of a small-school basketball program already, now we've learned we don't even get as many opportunities to participate in a good ol' court storming! That said, this is precisely the reason why it is so special to be a part of a rushing when it happens at this level, why it is the holy grail.

Fortunately for Oakland University fans, the program will always have a shot at court storming during the conference tournament since The Summit League earns only one-bid to the NCAA Tournament. And OU has an Athletics Department very committed to ensuring that an adequate number of student supporters are given the opportunity to be present at the tournament every year. After that, it is up to the team to make it to the championship game, to give the fans a shot at fulfilling a dream.

For a group of die-hard Grizzlies and I, this dream became a reality during last year's conference tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. For an entire year, I had the image of the North Dakota State Bison fans storming the court, hoisting Ben Woodside on their shoulders after he hit the game winning shot against Oakland in 2009. While NDSU had geography on its side, Oakland had space on buses, and lots of it. For the 2010 Conference Tournament, there were close to 100 student supporters making up the band, the cheer and dance teams, and the spirit entity known as the Grizz Gang. We spent over 15 hours (each way) on those buses, but it was all worth the opportunity to cheer on the Grizzlies as they embarked on a three-day journey toward a conference championship and the chance to send the team off to the NCAAs like the Bison fans had done one year earlier.

As anyone reading likely knows, the championship game was one heckuva battle, led by the historic performance of Derick Nelson. In the closing minutes, after Keith Benson had blocked an IUPUI shot that led to the game-clinching And-1 transition bucket by Nelson, I remember being so out-of-control in my excitement that I somehow ended up in an entirely different section of the bleachers we were occupying. In that moment, I was so high on adrenaline that thought I had mastered the art of teleportation.

After a few more token end-of-the-game plays on the court, the true teleportation - to the floor - was imminent. My friends and I, and the rest of the fans in attendance, began flooding out of the bleachers to the very edge of the court as the final seconds waned. If it weren't for a last second whistle abruptly halting our rush to a celebration on the court (one which ended up making OU fans appear as novices, which is partially true given the rules), the court storming would have been perfect, one where the seconds between leaving the seat and jumping up and down on the court are lost in the moment. Alas, it was only near-perfect, but the elation felt once that first foot touched hardwood quickly made up for any glitches in the approach.

The celebration lasted for over thirty-minutes. What started out as a black and gold blend of players, coaches, fans, and families jumping and yelling in unison at center-court gave way to players hugging moms and dads, fans taking photos, and media members seeking out quotes for the game recaps. Afterward, everyone got a chance to cut a piece of the net, and thanks to a suggestion I overheard by Coach Greg Kampe, even members of the band, cheer/dance, and Grizz Gang were afforded the opportunity to climb the ladder for a piece of glory. It was in that moment everyone knew they had contributed to the event that just happened. While the coaches and players made it possible to win the game, everyone in the stands, all of those who rode charter buses or flew out on their own dime, had given Oakland basketball as great of a home-game atmosphere as possible some 16 hours away from the O'Rena. We poured our hearts out and lost our voices, and the program gave something back to us for our efforts, just as we had been giving to them all along.

That night I knew I was a part of something special. I knew, deep down, that such an experience could never be had as a fan of a big-time college sports institution. The rewards of sticking with a small-time program are vast, especially at Oakland. The fans who were in South Dakota last March can attest to that. We will remember forever the rush that comes along with rushing the court, and the feeling we had as the most recognizable figures at Oakland actively encouraged the fans to stick around for the entire celebration. I can only hope my fellow and future fans can one day feel the same. Beyond my educational experience at OU, this experience is the major reasons why I will, through thick and thin, forever be a Golden Grizzly.


And with that comes the close of this latest series on what it is to be a Golden Grizzlies fan. I feel this is also a good point to briefly mention a few concepts regarding this outlet. As the previous posts indicate, I'm an unabashed fan of this school and program. I'm not an Xs and Os guy, nor do I really have the knowledge necessary to breakdown player mechanics. I won't write recaps or have scoops because the program already has a great beat writer. Admittedly, I am leaving the state for graduate school this fall, but my location will provide me (barring weather conditions, homework assignments, and cash-flow hiccups) the opportunity to check out a few road games. I'm already eying games against Purdue, IUPUI, and if it ends up on the schedule, Illinois. Wright State may be a possibility as well. My hope is to offer more broad-level perspective on the program/school, experiences at road games, match-up analysis, and whatever else comes to mind that would be relevant and original. As noted, most of this is contingent on having the time to do so, but I've enjoyed thinking and writing about these topics and people seem to read them. So with that, go Grizzlies!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Golden Grizzlies Fan: Part II

This is the second post in a three-part series about fans and Golden Grizzlies basketball. The previous installment is linked below in the first paragraph. The third will arrive shortly, detailing the holy grail of college basketball fanaticism: rushing the court.

In the last post, I talked a lot about the way in which people become Golden Grizzlies fans. At the center of this discussion is the fact that most people end up chanting "Let's Go Grizzlies" because of the circumstances tied to educational choice as opposed to socialization or location. While this idea alone doesn't describe the way in which each and every OU fan became such, I would argue it is true of a distinct majority. Even with that said, there has been a shift in this paradigm over the last decade or so, and one that will only continue to change as the university grows.

Oakland University transitioned to Division 1 only in the late 1990s, meaning that there are only about a decade's worth of graduates who are truly Golden Grizzlies. With no offense to all of the fans and supporters who left OU as Pioneers, there is a certain level of association that comes from being a part of something as it happened. Therefore, even the earliest Golden Grizzlies, those graduating between 1998 and 2002, are just now hitting their early thirties. For many, the early thirties means settling down and buying a home, marriage and children, and promotions and raises. Additional income and stability means more opportunities to support an alma mater, whether that be by joining an alumni association, donating money, or becoming a season ticket holder. For Oakland, the alumni network of Golden Grizzlies is just beginning to get its footing, and with that comes a new era of prosperity.

With this new class of fans emerging, expect to see more young children latching onto the Golden Grizzlies (the socialization process). And with more success on the court and off, there will be more interest from the region (the location factor). Paired with these two emergent trends is another that will have ripple effects for years to come: stronger student participation. This is something a friend and I have already written about, but the short version of the story is that it is growing. The watershed moment came at Homecoming 2010, where over 700 students were in attendance (a figure so monumental it was announced on the Grizz Gang website). What we are seeing is an influx of students becoming impassioned about Oakland basketball, growing a tradition that one can only hope will last for a lifetime.

The Athletics Department has been doing a fine job of attempting to keep such tradition strong with the creation of the Gold Zone, a section of the O'Rena devoted entirely to alumni. A growing entity, the Gold Zone will surely continue to attract recent alums who stay in the area as well as those who are more seasoned but are seeking ways to reconnect with the university. As a graduate of the Class of 2010, I will be crossing the Rubicon myself next season, leaving behind many peers in the Grizz Gang to sit alongside the wiser members of the Gold Zone. The names alone reflect the difference between the two: "Grizz Gang" drawing up an image of a rambunctious crew of youngins, "Gold Zone" something more relaxed and classy. While it will be an adjustment at first, I think all the recent graduates and myself will come to respect and enjoy our new digs, and perhaps even attempt to leave our own mark in the process.

Transitioning from student to alumni fan is a very interesting process, indeed. While not quite as daunting as the same transition embarked upon in real life, it still presents one with a few initial obstacles to overcome: no more jumping up and down in unison, free tickets, or endless standing (well, that last one I won't miss so much). But the sense that we're all a part of something bigger than ourselves is still the same, the community intact. The types of chants may be different, but there will still be opportunities to sing "fight, fight, fight for Oakland" or get on a ref for a bad call. In the O'Rena, it all comes down to the same common denominator: to cheer on the Grizzlies. That is something I intend to make a lifelong initiative, and one that will surely be carried on by many new and forthcoming Golden Grizzlies graduates. Keepin' the tradition and pride strong.