Sunday, October 31, 2010

Membership Drama In The Summit League

There are a lot of reports and rumors out there this weekend about potential membership changes for The Summit League. What has been confirmed at this point by media outlets is that Southern Utah will be accepting an invitation to join the Big Sky Conference on Monday, as will University of North Dakota. The University of South Dakota has been linked with this story but there have not been any media reports suggesting that the school will be included here. The implications of all of this will surely not be known for some time, but in an attempt to navigate this crazy web of membership changes, I've put together the following chart which offers an incredibly early look at how conference realignment in the WAC and Big Sky could potentially impact The Summit League (click to enlarge).

Disagree or see something I missed? Please comment! Please do note that a number of the scenarios covered in this chart are based on speculation and speculation only. I attempted to note the changes that have been reported by actual media outlets or the schools themselves. We'll learn a lot more on Monday, presumably. It sure will be an interesting few days for Summit League enthusiasts. Follow the Gameplan on twitter here for up-to-the-minute links to reports.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ranking Michigan's Division I Basketball Teams

College basketball may reach its recent high point in the state of Michigan during the 2010-11 season. There are seven Division 1 programs in the mitten which compete in four different conferences, and the state should have teams competing for league crowns in all of them. Some programs return very talented teams while others welcome new individuals looking to make an immediate impact. One of the historic programs looks to have a down year, but perhaps that will shift some of the state's attention to other budding teams. Whatever the case, it's a great time to be a college hoops fan in the Great Lakes State. In an attempt to highlight these basketball teams, we've put together some paragraphs on all seven programs covering various storylines heading into the season. And just to spur conversation, the teams appear in order of where we'd rank them in the hardwood hierarchy of Michigan.

#1. Michigan State
For reasons both positive and negative, the Michigan State basketball program has been in the headlines a lot this summer. For a few days early in the summer, it seemed likely that Tom Izzo would leave East Lansing for a gig coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers thanks to some very serious overtures from Cavs owner/MSU alumni Dan Glibert. In a decision that perhaps looks best now that the dust from the NBA's free agency period has settled, Izzo ultimately decided to remain in East Lansing for what will likely be the rest of his coaching days. His players didn't help out his stress levels, though, as one was busted for driving under the influence of alcohol and two others were at the center of a sexual assault on-campus. Still, the Spartans are a near unanimous preseason top-three team, and many writers believe they'll be cutting down the nets in next April's national championship game. The high expectations, to go along with the fact that Izzo received commitments from five highly-touted recruits in a two week span earlier this summer, firmly cement Michigan State as the state's number one hoops program.

#2. Oakland
Last season, there was only one Michigan team aside from MSU to make the NCAA Tournament: Oakland University. While some might argue that the state's two Big Ten teams should automatically rank higher than the state's mid-majors due to differing strengths of schedule, we would argue differently. While Michigan certainly played tougher teams more often last season, Oakland's only shot at making the tournament was through winning its conference. In the Big Ten and other like-conferences, teams can go .500 and still receive an at-large bid. The stakes, therefore, are higher in a conference like The Summit League, and we treat Oakland's success as proof of its positioning here. While OU loses two of last season's heroes, it returns NBA hopeful Keith Benson who has more experience, size, and athletic ability than any other big man in the state. While such a ranking might not hold true all of the time, there is no doubt that the Golden Grizzlies have earned this placement heading into 2010-11.

#3. Michigan
Coach John Beilein will have his work cut out for him in 2010-11. His most productive players from last season, Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, have moved on, leaving him with a bevy of inexperienced underclassmen who should receive a lot of playing time. While some predict that Beilein works magic with a roster full of guys no one expects much of, we think that this year will be a bit of a rebuilding year for Michigan. The team will surely struggle through what will be an incredibly competitive Big Ten, and there will be at least one or two games dropped to mid-majors. One game where the Wolverines might just be the underdogs is against Oakland. Though it will be in Ann Arbor, the Golden Grizzlies will be looking to beat the maize and blue for the first time since 2000.

#4. Detroit
The University of Detroit's rise from obscurity to respectability will gain some serious ground in 2010-11. Coach Ray McCallum appears to have been quite a solid hire for the Titans, as his team jumped up from just two conference wins in 2008-09 to nine last season. He also secured a commitment from Ray McCallum, Jr, his own son who also doubled as a McDonald's All-American during his senior season at Detroit Country Day. The point guard will almost surely start immediately for the Titans, giving the team a bona fide playmaker who should do wonders in the Horizon League. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages the team has heading into this season is Eli Holman, a banger who provides them with a solid presence in the post. The Horizon League is Butler's to lose this year, but don't be surprised if Detroit is hanging out in the top three by season's end.

#5. Central Michigan
The Chippewas quietly won the MAC West last season, though the reason no one took notice was because of how subpar that side of the conference has been in recent years. To prove a point, the team's 9-7 conference record would have put them in a three-way tie for third place in the MAC East. With that said, Central Michigan should contend again this year despite the fact it loses its top two scorers from last season. The team will be chock-full of seniors in 2010-11, but the player looking to make the biggest impact will be Trey Zeigler, son of CMU's head coach Ernie Zeigler. Like McCallum, Zeigler was a highly-touted high schooler who ultimately chose to play for his dad. While Detroit may have more upside, CMU plays in a more wide-open conference and could find itself competing for an automatic bid come March.

#6. Eastern Michigan
Choosing between Eastern and Western Michigan for this spot was rather difficult. Each school lost a few very productive players to graduation, but ultimately Eastern Michigan has the better stud returning. For the Eagles, that man is Brandon Bowdry. The senior forward nearly averaged a double-double last season and absolutely torched Oakland when he visited the O'Rena last November. The Eagles ended the season with a .500 record and having Bowdry back should mean that the team will at least get to that level again in 2010-11.

#7. Western Michigan
As I said, choosing between EMU and WMU for this last spot was a sort of toss-up. In the end, it simply appears that the Broncos lose more production than the Eagles, and there are no guys who appear to be locks to replace said production. David Kool was one of the more prolific scorers in the nation last season, but he has since graduated, as did the team's leading rebounder Donald Lawson and second leading scorer Martelle McLemore. A number of guys will get a chance to step-up this season and could no doubt surprise folks, especially in the generally weak MAC West. But for now, at least heading into the season, the Broncos receive the distinction of coming in last on our list.

For those interested in tracking in-state battles this season, here is a list of all the games where two Michigan teams will face-off:


November 12
Eastern Michigan @ Michigan State

December 8
Detroit @ Western Michigan

December 11
Oakland vs. Michigan State (at The Palace)
Detroit @ Eastern Michigan

December 18
Oakland @ Michigan
Detroit @ Central Michigan

December 21
Eastern Michigan @ Oakland*

January 9
Central Michigan @ Western Michigan

January 16
Eastern Michigan @ Western Michigan

January 23
Central Michigan @ Eastern Michigan

January 27
Michigan @ Michigan State

February 16
Eastern Michigan @ Central Michigan

February 27
Western Michigan @ Eastern Michigan

March 4
Western Michigan @ Central Michigan

March 5
Michigan State @ Michigan

* This game would result only if Eastern Michigan and Oakland win first-round games of the Lou Henson Tournament, held at the O'Rena.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wishful Thinking Or Potential Reality? The Case For Oakland's Schedule

When the Oakland basketball schedule is released every year, fans have come to expect to see a challenging non-conference portion typically including at least five games against major conference opponents. Over the years, coach Greg Kampe has talked at length about why he schedules this way, commonly citing these games as opportunities to extend the Oakland name, give his players a chance to play against the best college teams prior to conference matches, and collect a payday that can help pay for travel and other expenses throughout the year. Sometimes the Golden Grizzlies are able to keep these games close or even win (as they did recently against Oregon), but usually such matches always end in a loss. It was never worse than in 2009-10 when Oakland was plastered in games against Kansas, Syracuse, Michigan State, and Memphis. With the senior leaders and other talent on that year's roster, many fans were justifiable disappointed in the outcomes of these competitions.

It's safe to say those early losses were all but forgotten by the time Oakland traveled to Sioux Falls for The Summit League tournament on the heels of a one-loss conference season. Even with the success the team experienced, there has often been a sense among some fans that OU should not play as many games against the power conferences, instead searching for matches with those from some of the more competitive mid-major leagues (the Missouri Valley, Atlantic 10, and Horizon League could fall in this category). There are many programs that subscribe to this philosophy. Illinois State out of the MVC is one such program, yet even playing in a more competitive league, their non-conference schedule has never been strong enough for them to warrant at-large consideration. Utah State has also been notoriously stingy when it comes to playing in guarantee games, though unlike Illinois State, the Aggies have still been a bubble team in the last few years even without as many "marquee" opponents.

The scheduling advantage that Illinois State and Utah State have is that they play in leagues that can earn more than one-bid to the NCAA tournament without shocking anyone. The Summit League, on the other hand, is your standard one-bid league. Using this thought, one could argue that the non-conference games are even less meaningful for a team like Oakland, and therefore the team should play games where there would be a higher chance of winning. This argument ignores some of the real benefits of these games, however, such as a strengthened RPI which can then result in higher seeding in the NCAA Tournament. This is clearly something Coach Kampe has considered, as it was fine and dandy just to get there in 2005 as a play-in 16-seed, yet last year there was a stronger sense that the program's progress warranted a higher seed (which did indeed occur).

In an ultimate what-if scenario, playing such powerful non-conference opponents could have another glorious result for Oakland: an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. There are very few teams from a level comparable to Oakland that have been able to do this, though the 2007-2008 South Alabama Jaguars serve as a recent example. Whether or not the bubble was weak that year, USA somehow managed to make it into the Tournament as a 10-seed despite bowing out in the semifinals of its conference tournament (the Sun Belt, which had not had an at-large since 1994). So how did the Jaguars do it? Looking back on their schedule from that year, it's rather clear: they played a competitive non-conference slate, took care of the teams they needed to, kept games against the BCS schools close, and nearly ran the table in-conference. In November and December, USA lost by only three points to SEC foes Mississippi and Vanderbilt and beat Southern Miss from Conference USA and the SEC's Mississippi State. In other words, the Jaguars showed up for all of their games that year and were rewarded accordingly.

Last season, many thought the Portland Pilots were destined for the same kind of success. Though its West Coast Conference has often received more than one bid, the Pilots had never been a consistent contender for an at-large. Early on, Eric Reveno's squad had three straight wins against BCS opponents (Oregon, UCLA, and Minnesota). That streak gave the program a national ranking and much national attention, a consequence some have said distracted the team and led to losses in its next three games, squashing any early hopes of an at-large. From this example, we learn just how difficult it is for a mid-major program to sustain such a pattern, especially when the national attention comes creeping in. South Alabama had an advantage in this regard because the 07-08 upsets didn't come until the middle of December when the media was busy getting ready for big-time conference games to begin.

In 2010-11, many of the games where Oakland could make some noise are fittingly in mid-to-late December. The Golden Grizzlies will face Illinois, Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan, and Ohio State in a 16-day span of time. Earlier, they'll also get West Virginia and Purdue as well as a few games with quality mid-major programs. While there are more marquee names on this schedule than South Alabama's in 07-08, it still sets up much like that one did. The teams are perhaps tougher for Oakland though, and given recent history, many won't give the Grizzlies a chance in these match-ups. However, if Coach Kampe can implement a gameplan that keeps these games close, people will start to notice. And if his team can pull out two to three victories (while taking care of business against lesser opponents), folks might start throwing the "at-large" word around.

Admittedly, the chances of Oakland receiving an at-large are small. So much has to go right. In addition to having the right mix of players, the team would need a bit of luck to knock off a few of the giants. Moreover, any mid-major from this level has very little room for error during the conference season, which means Oakland would have to try to come as close as possible to its 17-1 mark from 2009-10. Surely accomplishing such is no small feat. But as South Alabama showed us three seasons ago, it has happened. And there is no reason why it won't again.

If Coach Kampe were to put out a schedule more like those that UMKC and WIU have put together this year, Oakland would win a lot of games but have no shot at an at-large. In essence, at least this schedule gives Oakland a chance to achieve such glory. The drawbacks are that the team gets pummeled by the big programs, those fans laugh at Oakland, and Oakland fans are upset for a while at the team's performance. On the other hand, if the Grizzlies keep those games close or win one, two, or three of them, we are looking at a team that the pundits would talk about as a potential bubble team in March. It would be impossible for the selection committee to ignore the program's track-record, even when naysayers call The Summit League a lackluster conference. In essence, such a schedule is ammunition, if used properly.

I'm not saying that this year's roster is the one that will finally break through and win a couple of these marquee matches. In fact, going into those games as a fan with such expectations is probably a bit unhealthy. No, this is essentially a defense of Coach Kampe's scheduling philosophy. One day this process will pay off. It could be this year; after all, the team has a legitimate center and athleticism and experience at most of the other positions. Alternatively, there are a number of questions surrounding this roster still, so perhaps such results won't come so quick. Either way, I'll continue to hope for games against the Big Ten and Big East with a shot at national recognition and at-large consideration over a pack of winnable games against teams that won't do much for the program's profile*.

*Please note that this is not an advocation for a complete non-conference schedule against BCS teams. Going this route would result in a plethora of away games and no home games for the program to entertain and win over new fans. Every schedule is about balance, and home games in November and December are a part of that balance.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Summit League Coaches Loyal Above All Others

As I was compiling some information for the Gameplan's Summit League previews, there was an interesting trend I discovered among head coaches in the conference. Though some are still relative newcomers, there is a distinct portion of coaches who have been with their programs for over ten years or more. Some you know of, such as Oakland's own Greg Kampe, but others may come as more of a surprise, such as Scott Nagy, who will enter his 16th season with South Dakota State this season. What makes these numbers more thrilling is the fact that a number of the coaches here have been with their respective programs through transitions from Division II to Division I. After reclassification, many of these men have found success despite the higher level of competition. Not only have their athletic directors honored such success, but they've also stayed true to their programs by sticking around for more.

The longevity of coaches in The Summit League gives the conference the unique distinction of having the highest collective average of tenure out of the 31 conferences in the nation which receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament (necessary to say since the Great West was not included). Together, the ten coaches in this league have been with their schools for an average of 9.4 years, which is good for .04 more than the next highest conference, the Atlantic Sun. Rounding to the nearest tenth, however, reveals that The Summit League ties with the A-Sun. Either way you look at it, it's still pretty darn impressive. While some conferences may have coaches with more overall head coaching experience, these numbers only take into account years from each coach's hire at their current school. With that said, it could be concluded that no other coaches collectively know the landscape of their school and conference better than those in The Summit League.

Currently, there are a number of coaches in the league who are in the middle of a rebuilding process. Western Illinois' Jim Molinari enters his third season with the Leathernecks, a program he clearly has on the rise. Considering the fact he has already been around the coaching circuit and he'll have his son there for the next four years, Molinari's job looks to be safe for the near future. NDSU's Saul Phillips is similarly safe, though his security is more predicated on the recent success his program saw with a previous coach's recruits. UMKC's Matt Brown and Southern Utah's Roger Reid enter their fourth seasons with their programs in 2010-11, both with sketchy track-records thus far. If their squads do not make some strides in the next year or two, we could see coaching changes at UMKC and Southern Utah in the near future.

Looking at the numbers more closely across the nation, we find that all the conferences together have had their coaches in place for an average of 6.1 years. Using this as a standard, I would argue that six seasons is the general timeframe many universities will use in determining the fate of coaches. In six seasons, a coach would have had ample opportunity to recruit players to fit his system, and if positive on-court results haven't followed, then the administration may decide to make a change. Using this framework, let's assume that UMKC and Southern Utah give their coaches at least two more seasons, at the minimum. If we consider safe the jobs of the more tenured coaches (and assuming a young commodity like IPFW's Dane Fife doesn't bolt for greener pastures), then the future of The Summit League's collective coaching experience looks bright.

In addition to the usual suspects returning, the replacement of Centenary with the University of South Dakota will alter these figures even more next season. Essentially, the conference will trade a first-year head coach at Centenary for a 24-year veteran in USD's Dave Boots. When this occurs, this far-stretching conference will boost its coaching tenure average to a whopping 12.6 years. Even if there is no turnover at other programs across the nation, The Summit League will still blow away all other leagues in this department. Such a change will also bring the conference median up to ten years, signifying that the tenure rate isn't just boosted by one or two coaches with decades of service (like in the Big East).

So what is this information good for, anyway? Well, potential recruits may be interested in it because it shows that they'll have the strongest chance of being coached by the same person for all four years of their careers in The Summit League. In other words, loyalty figures strongly at Summit League institutions; even with success, the coaches here are less likely to take a job elsewhere for a bigger paycheck. Moreover, players can take solace in knowing their coaches will be very familiar with conference opponents year-in and year-out. At this level, such knowledge is precious because the conference championship is a direct route to the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, applications for this information may be limited, but it is fascinating nonetheless. After all, The Summit League may not be the most talked about conference in the nation, but it sure does have some of the wisest and most loyal coaches in all of college hoops.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Oakland, Mike Illitch, And His Plans For The Palace

Major changes are happening just down the road from Oakland's campus at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Executives at 3 Championship Drive (forgive me for ignoring the Shock) have been trying as they might all summer long to sell the Detroit Pistons franchise and its arena and entertainment brand to the highest bidder. Out of this process, it has been revealed that Detroit Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Illitch will likely be the next Pistons and Palace owner. If Illitch does end up acquiring these valuable assets, many believe that he would eventually seek to move the Pistons back to downtown Detroit to play in a new arena shared with the Red Wings. Earlier this month, the Detroit News reported the following on how this would impact the Palace:
While it would likely continue to function, questions remain about the future of The Palace, which is the area’s premier arena. The 22-year-old venue undoubtedly would lose some of its luster if a new arena were to be constructed in Detroit near the Fox Theatre, as has been proposed.
In an even more recent article, the Detroit Free Press noted that "Mike Ilitch is 'definitely committed' to building a new sports arena downtown." While nothing is known for certain, it is clear that Illitch and Co. desire a new arena in Detroit, leaving the Palace to operate largely as an entertainment venue when tours would be willing to play there instead of the newer, more glamorous arena (like that will happen).

While there is a lot to be said about this plan and how it would disrupt the Pistons' prime fanbase, how it might be financed, and the implications for Oakland County, it could also directly affect Oakland basketball. Presently, Oakland U has a major edge in its ability to schedule marquee non-conference matches at the Palace. Not only do these games count as home games for the program, but they allow the coaches an opportunity to bring a major opponent to within 10 minutes of campus when said teams might not be keen on playing in the O'Rena. This has worked in securing games against the likes of Oregon, Michigan, and Michigan State in the past few years. And there is no reason why it wouldn't continue to be utilized in the future.

Unless, however, the Palace isn't operable. Those familiar with Oakland County and sports would be quick to point to the Silverdome as an example of a major sports stadium/arena which was left to waste once the primary tenant moved out. Simply put, these vestiges lose their value once teams leave, and no amount of secondary sports or events can change that fact. The Palace has maintained its look and value over the years because the Pistons play there still. If the Pistons are gone, concerts, sub-par sporting events, and trade shows won't be reason enough for those in charge to keep it at its current point of prominence. As a result, the opportunity for Oakland to host games there would likely be diminished.

The side effects of the Pistons moving out of the Palace and to downtown Detroit wouldn't end simply with the lack of a viable arena to host Golden Grizzlies games in. We'd likely never see Pistons players at Oakland games anymore like we did last year when Jonas Jerebko showed up a few times or Rodney Stuckey and Chucky Atkins on another occasion. The Recreation Center would no longer feature surprise visits by opposing NBA squads who practice there at times during visits to Auburn Hills. And what about the NCAAs? No one will ever forget the time Oakland played host to the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament and plastered the university's name on the center of the Palace floor. (I still think this had to do with the tournament sites transitioning to a neutral floor design for all rounds). While these might not exactly be tangible items, they do factor into helping the program and university while adding a bit of excitement to student life.

Over the next year or so, there will no doubt be many articles written about how a downtown arena for the Pistons and Red Wings would "do wonders for Detroit's economy" and "restore downtown Detroit's sports fortitude." I won't get into an argument about the economic impact of sports arenas, but I will say that the useful life of the Palace has not expired. Move the team to Detroit and the owners will have essentially put an end to a building that is still considered among the best arenas in the Association. Moreover, it would seriously squash a really great thing that has been beneficial for the Oakland program. For what it's worth, we hope Illitch will keep hold of the Palace until sensor-flushing urinals are as out of style as the troughs at the Joe.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Best Case/Worst Case And Hopes: Senior Players

As we look ahead to the beginning of the 2010-11 season, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the best and worst case scenarios for each of the Oakland U basketball players. The expectations are quite high this year in Rochester, and many of the Golden Grizzlies ballers will need to have great seasons in order for the team to achieve the kind of success many are predicting. In writing several of these blurbs, we attempted to make them as fun as possible. Our goal is not to be discouraging of the players; in fact as dedicated fans, it's just the opposite. With that said, we hope a little humor here and there makes this a fun read, and please note wenever joke about injuries. Obviously, that would be a true "worst case," but we're not going there. After reading the various best and worst case scenarios we've concocted, there is also a line featuring our hopes for each player. Remember, this is just the perspective of one fan and should not be considered any kind of definitive word on the players. We conclude with Oakland's senior class:
Keith Benson
Best Case Scenario: Adds more strength and improves post defense in the offseason. Thumb completely healed. Shows off expanded skillset. Dominates in games against low-major teams. Competes well against bigs from BCS schools, shutting them down on defense (like Cole Aldrich in 2009) and owning the paint while on offense. Continues to impress NBA scouts, posting averages of 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game with 20 and 10 performances against best competition. Most importantly, becomes a leader in final season by willing team to many close victories. Earns Summit League Player of the Year. Leads team to NCAA Tournament. Drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft. Leaves Oakland University as a legend.

Worst Case Scenario: Continues to post stellar averages (18/10/3) but the team game isn't quite where it was the year prior. The team is blown out against Big Ten schools and the like while Benson posts great individual numbers. Team fares well during conference schedule but another team (ORU?) playing better team-ball wins championship. Benson wins or competes for second Summit League Player of the Year. Drafted in second round. Fans happy but slightly bitter about way season ended for the team as a whole.

What We're Hoping For: We doubt you'd come across a single Oakland fan who doesn't hope Keith Benson makes it to the NBA in 2011. Here at the Gameplan, that's clearly our number one wish for the big man. The "experts" out there think Benson still needs to add strength and show improved defensive ability in the post. Even with those, we still think Kito's chances of getting draft notice are much greater if his team makes it to the NCAA Tournament. While we don't have any hard data to back it up, the NCAA Tournament can give the kind of exposure a fringe draft pick needs to become a sure-fire pick (see: Patrick O'Bryant). In a sense, as the key to Oakland's success, Benson truly does hold his future in his hands. We hope its painted bright.

Will Hudson
Best Case Scenario: Emerges as the senior leader for the Golden Grizzlies on the court and off where he helps new bigs find their way. Averages 8 points and 5 boards a game and continues to beef up his already great career field goal percentage. Early struggles against Illinois and Michigan State are forgotten during conference season where he is a defensive force and monster on the glass. Comes up with big performances in late February and March, including a career game in the Summit League Tournament. Ends his OU playing days as a celebrated champion and one of the program's all-time good guys/four-year players. Size and ability gives him shot to play professionally overseas.

Worst Case Scenario: Begins season as a starter but overall playing time is limited when Oakland decides to go with a smaller line-up. Corey Petros also gets some time in early games and impresses, further tampering with Hudson's time. He recognizes his new role and takes it like a champion, playing with fire and passion when he is on the court. Averages suffer a bit, but he still comes up with a big rebound, tip-in, or block at key moments in important games. Still leaves OU as a celebrated champion, well-liked amongst the fans and program, with a shot to make an international team.

What We're Hoping For: In 2010-11, we hope Will lives up to his nickname, "The Thrill." In reality, there aren't a lot of thrilling aspects to Hudson's game. He boards the ball well, especially on the offensive end. He gets a lot of easy baskets off of said offensive rebounds, which adds to his impressive field goal percentage. And he defends well against opposing bigs. These are the mundane things that don't often get recognition. Hudson might not be lighting it up with 10-foot jumpers or posterizing dunks, but Oakland is ultimately better off for having a guy like him playing consistent minutes in the paint. In his senior year, we hope he continues to prove why he's been so valuable to the team while enjoying his run as team captain. It's much deserved.

Larry Wright
Best Case Scenario: Becomes a viable scoring option for the Grizzlies, averaging around 13 points per game, resulting from a mix of driving the lane and hitting three-pointers. Aids in the sound execution of offense and plays stellar defense. Finds the shooting touch he had while playing in the Big East, with lines like 2 for 10 the exception rather than the norm.

Worst Case Scenario: Scores a lot in one or two early games against low-major. Turns out to be an abberation. Never finds his shooting touch, struggling from the field for most of the season. Hits a few key three pointers in two or three games but main role is to help execute the offense and play solid defense.

What We're Hoping For: Larry Wright had some great games last season, but for whatever reason, the nights he went 2-10 or 3-9 stick out more in my memory. It seemed like he just never found his touch from deep despite playing solidly in most other regards. We hope that he can bounce back this season and endear himself to Oakland fans a bit more before going off into the sunset that is graduation.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Best Case/Worst Case And Hopes: Junior Players

As we look ahead to the beginning of the 2010-11 season, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the best and worst case scenarios for each of the Oakland U basketball players. The expectations are quite high this year in Rochester, and many of the Golden Grizzlies ballers will need to have great seasons in order for the team to achieve the kind of success many are predicting. In writing several of these blurbs, we attempted to make them as fun as possible. Our goal is not to be discouraging of the players; in fact as dedicated fans, it's just the opposite. With that said, we hope a little humor here and there makes this a fun read, and please note wenever joke about injuries. Obviously, that would be a true "worst case," but we're not going there. After reading the various best and worst case scenarios we've concocted, there is also a line featuring our hopes for each player. Remember, this is just the perspective of one fan and should not be considered any kind of definitive word on the players. Next is a look at Oakland's junior athletes:

Blake Cushingberry
Best Case Scenario: Inspired by his performance in the Summit League tournament, Kampe puts him in the starting line-up. Embraces new role, finding his shot early on and never loses it. Double-teams on Benson often leave him open to take shots on the perimeter. Also improves ball-handling skills, making it easier for him to work opponents one-on-one. Defense is solid throughout the year. At least one late comeback win for OU is due to a monster three-pointer from Cushingberry.

Worst Case Scenario: Fails to find a shooting groove; mostly disappoints when key threes are needed. Great on defense when at a comfortable position, locking down smaller guards in the half-court offense. Ends season with typical averages and limited impact.

What We're Hoping For: We would love to see Cushingberry knock down meaningful baskets all year. He has been inconsistent in the past, yet now as a junior and probable starter, we feel the time has come for him to really step up his game.

Reggie Hamilton
Best Case Scenario: Wins "Summit League Newcomer of the Year" in everyone's hearts and minds, but a glitch in the system (he played for UMKC) disqualifies him from being eligible. Averages 14 points and 5 assists per game. Lauded for his ability to score at-will, get other players involved, and bring defensive toughness to the backcourt. Establishes himself as a vocal leader for the Golden Grizzlies.

Worst Case Scenario: Never quite finds his fit in the backcourt as a combo guard, struggles between operating as a scorer and leading the offense at times. Shots don't fall. Ends up with a decent PPG average thanks to those games early in the season where he scored 20+ points but leaves fans desirous of more.

What We're Hoping For: After a year of practicing with the team (and against JJ), we know chemistry won't be a problem. So we're hoping that Reggie can come out from the very beginning to be a difference maker for Oakland. Coach Kampe has indicated that Larry Wright will act as facilitator more often than Hamilton which should mean plenty of scoring opportunities for The New Number 23. In addition to the open looks he'll get on the perimeter, we hope that he'll be aggressive in getting to the lane, drawing fouls, and dishing out when necessary. Sky's the limit for Hamilton.

Drew Maynard
Best Case Scenario: Comes back from suspension at some point early in the season. Rusty but still has the athleticism and energy that made him a fan-favorite. Time away from team enables him to stay incredibly focused and help where he can. Does not get much playing time but uses it as motivation to do best he can when on the court. When he does play, shows off that athleticism to get to the basket and draw fouls while knocking down jumpers from beyond the arc. Slowly sees his playing time increase to the point where whatever happened just before Midnight Madness is forgotten (at least by the fans).

Worst Case Scenario: Never makes it back with the team. Fans frown thinking about what could have been for this player.

What We're Hoping For: We think it's good for a fan's health to never get too attached to the idea of a specific player always being around. We've seen good players find themselves suspended or booted from the team before, and while the initial feeling is terrible, Coach Kampe finds a way to make things work out.

Ilija Milutinovic
Best Case Scenario: At the first game of season, fans impressed by work he has put into his body. More muscle tone and ability to get up and down the court for longer periods of time. Begins to find his niche in the offensive system, earning minutes when Benson or Hudson in foul trouble/resting. Shows off ability to work hard, especially in the paint. Doesn't hit his stride until the conference season starts where he sets new personal highs in minutes played, points, rebounds, blocks, and all the individual statistical categories. Fans enthused by his play, earning him fan-favorite status. Play at end of season earns him consideration for major minutes in senior season sans Benson/Hudson.

Worst Case Scenario: Begins season in similar shape as past seasons. Tires easily and pushed around when earning opportunity to play. Emergence of Petros limits Ilija's playing time even when Benson/Hudson in foul trouble. Continues to be a supportive teammate from the bench while only playing in garbage minutes. Hopes he can play more in senior season.

What We're Hoping For: Free Ilija! We realize he has to earn those backup minutes, but we want to see more of Ilija this season. It's hard to believe he is already a junior, which means he has to start making his appearances count. If he can give Oakland some quality minutes off the bench, opposing big men will never be able to take a break when facing the Golden Grizzlies.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Best Case/Worst Case And Hopes: Sophomore Players

As we look ahead to the beginning of the 2010-11 season, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the best and worst case scenarios for each of the Oakland U basketball players. The expectations are quite high this year in Rochester, and many of the Golden Grizzlies ballers will need to have great seasons in order for the team to achieve the kind of success many are predicting. In writing several of these blurbs, we attempted to make them as fun as possible. Our goal is not to be discouraging of the players; in fact as dedicated fans, it's just the opposite. With that said, we hope a little humor here and there makes this a fun read, and please note wenever joke about injuries. Obviously, that would be a true "worst case," but we're not going there. After reading the various best and worst case scenarios we've concocted, there is also a line featuring our hopes for each player. Remember, this is just the perspective of one fan and should not be considered any kind of definitive word on the players. Next we take a look at those entering their sophomore year of eligibility.

Ledrick Eackles
Best Case Scenario: His play at the end of the season and in the NCAA Tournament make him the first option off the bench in 2010-11. Ends up playing both positions in the backcourt and, despite not starting, averages roughly the same amount of minutes as Larry Wright and becomes an emotional leader for the Golden Grizzlies. Becomes OU's third scoring option, averaging 12 points along with 4 boards, 3 assists, and about 1.5 steals per game. Also has career highs in all of those categories throughout the season, including one or two 25+ point games. Earns 6th Man of the Year honors and Summit League Honorable Mention at season's end. Defense continues to awe, with best games coming against power-conference opponents. At least one OU win attributed to his last-minute heroics. Ends season as a favorite to start in the backcourt with Hamilton and to be an all-conference player in 2011-12.

Worst Case Scenario: Continues to provide a spark off the bench with his defense and playmaking ability in transition. Doesn't find much consistency in the half-court offense, and struggles to figure out his role (run the offense or make his own plays) when on the court with Wright or Hamilton. The solid play of Bader and Bass clogs the backcourt a bit, so Ledrick's playing time is cut back as a result. A few big games scattered amongst several more clunkers make for a lackluster individual season. But fans quickly realize he's still got two years left.

What We're Hoping For: We're pretty big on Eackles here at the Gameplan, which probably helped paint our glowing "Best Case Scenario" for him. We feel he could be an all-league player very quickly but realize he's still only a sophomore. This season, we hope Ledrick finds some consistency so he's not on the bench for large chunks of the season. Oakland is clearly better when he's on the court, and we hope he can prove why that is all season long.

Drew Valentine
Best Case Scenario: The departure of Derick Nelson opens up space at the 3, giving Valentine the opportunity to play more than during his freshman campaign. Cushingberry starts games at Valentine's position, but he quickly becomes the first option off the bench at forward. He displays the same motor that won over fans last season, grabbing offensive rebounds and making an impact with hussle plays. Continues to show progression with his shooting and defensive ability. Looks a bit frazzled against upper-echelon teams, but shines in conference play where he is a more natural fit, gaining confidence in driving to the basket and getting to the line. An Oakland star-in-the-making is born.

Worst Case Scenario: Drew Maynard comes back from suspension and has a brilliant season, overcoming past defensive shortcomings. He and Cushingberry play Nelson-like minutes; consequently, Valentine only comes in for about 6-8 minutes per game. Not a scoring option when in the game, so must showcase his talent through rebounding and hussle. Continues to earn respect of coaches and fans. Ends season as valued member of team but still seeking chance to do more.

What We're Hoping For: Can we please have a breakout season from Valentine? We need someone to emerge at the forward position to help lock down opposing wings, grab rebounds, and play with consistency. The opportunity seems like it will be there for Valentine. We hope he capitalizes on it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Best Case/Worst Case And Hopes: Freshmen Players

As we look ahead to the beginning of the 2010-11 season, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the best and worst case scenarios for each of the Oakland U basketball players. The expectations are quite high this year in Rochester, and many of the Golden Grizzlies ballers will need to have great seasons in order for the team to achieve the kind of success many are predicting. In writing several of these blurbs, we attempted to make them as fun as possible. Our goal is not to be discouraging of the players; in fact as dedicated fans, it's just the opposite. With that said, we hope a little humor here and there makes this a fun read, and please note we never joke about injuries. Obviously, that would be a true "worst case," but we're not going there. After reading the various best and worst case scenarios we've concocted, there is also a line featuring our hopes for each player. Remember, this is just the perspective of one fan and should not be considered any kind of definitive word on the players. First up is a look at the freshmen class.
Travis Bader (redshirt freshman)
Best Case Scenario: Gets first playing time in preseason exhibition, displays a knack for knocking down shots and hustling. Kampe plays him sparingly in first few games, often in the middle of the first half and during garbage time of one or two BCS blowouts. Continues to hit shots when called upon, establishing himself as a pure shooter for the Grizzlies. Sees his playing time increase during conference play where he can prove deadly against similar-bodied competition. While he isn't a featured guard yet, he ends season feeling confident about his expanding role.

Worst Case Scenario: Plays in exhibition game, putting on a show with his threes. Wealth of guards on the roster limits his opportunities during early season games. Oakland keeps all of the BCS-level games close so Bader only comes in for final seconds of each as a result. Supports team on the bench and in practice. Ends season slightly concerned about playing time, but Ricky Bieski pays him a visit, assuring him the program and fans will treat him well throughout his time at OU despite not being a featured player.

What We're Hoping For: We simply want to see Bader play. His addition to the roster before last season came as somewhat of a surprise, and since then there has always been a wondering on our part of what exactly this young man can do. Could he evolve his game and body to the point that one day he reminds us all of Erik Kangas? Or does he play garbage minutes and support the team from the bench for most of his career? Quite simply, we do not know. Coach Kampe and his staff probably have a firm idea of where they see Bader helping out this season as they've been working with him for a year, but for fans, 2010-11 will be our first chance to see what he's all about.

Ryan Bass
Best Case Scenario: Given chance to play based on early workouts and high expectations (not unlike Eackles' freshman season). Shows off athleticism and defensive skill from the get-go, earning 6-7 minutes per game off the bench. Logjam at guard prevents him from playing late in games but manages to make game-changing play when called upon while others in foul trouble. Everyone quickly realizes Bass is the point guard of the future. Fans get stoked about an uber-athletic backcourt featuring Bass and Eackles.

Ryan Bass has ups. (Screencap from Oakland Press video)

Worst Case Scenario: Combination of Wright, Hamilton, and Eackles makes it difficult for Bass to get onto the floor. Bader embraces his "Best Case Scenario," all but putting an end to any hopes Bass has of playing regularly. Still impresses when he gets a chance to play, but it just isn't enough time to prove what he can do. Still considered point guard of future, but fans are a little more uneasy about that proposition than if he were to have played more.

What We're Hoping For: Bass really impressed folks with some of his dunks at Grizz Madness. There is a kid playing for Ohio University this year by the name of D.J. Cooper who is a 5'11" sophomore guard with speed, athleticism, and tenacious defensive ability. He was also his conference's freshman of the year last season (and a guy Oakland will play against in a month). While Bass might not get the kind of minutes Cooper did in his freshman year, we're really hoping he is a similar player given some of the things they have in common. If he can come in and give the team quality minutes while showing flashes of greatness, we think fans will be very pleased.

Corey Petros
Best Case Scenario: Has a freshman season much like Drew Valentine's: lots of potential shown just not many chances to play because of the strength of those in front of him in the line-up. Used sparingly off the bench throughout the season and serviceable when given opportunity. Struggles mightily during first part of schedule, easily pushed around. Much better off against Summit League competition. Fans excited about possibilities for second season where he'll have endless opportunities with graduation of Benson and Hudson.

Worst Case Scenario: Has a freshmen season much like Jay Thames: one to two minutes per game every three games or so. Severely limited time makes it difficult to project his future capabilities. Uses lack of PT as motivation to get better for second season where he'll surely have a greater role.

What We're Hoping For: We can't wait to see this guy play a little bit more. He seems like a quality candidate to come in and do some of the little things that Will Hudson has been known for. It'd be nice to see enough of Petros this year to feel confident that he'll fill that void left when Hudson graduates at season's end.

Kyle Sikora
Best Case Scenario: Slight chance he doesn't redshirt, but it probably comes to this due to the fact he is still learning the game. He embraces the decision. Puts on weight and competes as hard as possible during practices. Learns a lot about the game of basketball from working with/against Benson, Hudson, and Ilija in practices. Actively supports teammates during games from the bench. Remains positive about his future with Oakland. Likes winter.

Worst Case Scenario: Frustrated over redshirt decision. Kampe tells him, "Two words: Keith Benson." Realizes it's best decision and works hard to get better for 2011-12 where his role will expand greatly. Doesn't like winter much but his new Northern friends introduce him to a fun-time activity called sledding.

What We're Hoping For: When you look back on the transformation of Keith Benson's body, it makes you really appreciate the fact he had a redshirt year. We think Sikora is likely destined for the same in his freshman season. However, we're not insiders, so who knows how this will all play out. If he does redshirt, let's hope Sikora can add some bulk to his frame and simply learn more about being a big man in The Summit League.

Jordan Howenstine (sophomore) and Joey Asbury (freshman) are the new walk-ons for this season. In lieu of a fleshed out post on each, we just wish these guys a productive season helping the team in practice and from the sidelines. Judging solely by Kampe's handling of walk-ons over the past four years or so, our anticipation is that playing time will be limited for these fellas, but they're still a part of a Division I program. Enjoy the ride.

Transfer Sitting Out The Year:
Laval Lucas-Perry will sit this year out as a transfer from the University of Michigan. Lucas-Perry will have one year of eligibility as a Golden Grizzly. We hope he can use this year to get comfortable with Coach Kampe's style and improve his shooting touch even more. Who knows how he will be used in 2011-12, but one would anticipate at the very least that he'll be given the green light to shoot from downtown. Players often like to say that they go to the gym to "get their shots up," but we can only hope LLP "gets his shots in" during his year off.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Musings On Midnight Madness

According to the NCAA bylaws, men's basketball teams can hold their first practices after 5:00pm on the Friday nearest October 15. In 2010, it just so happens that the first Friday nearest October 15 is actually Friday, October 15. Over the course of the past few years, there have been an increasing number of basketball programs running events called Midnight Madness (or some other play on the name) where fans come together to welcome the new team, watch them practice, and take part in various festivities. Oakland University has jumped on this very fun bandwagon in recent years and will do the same tonight with its Grizz Madness beginning at 8:00pm at the O'Rena.

The practical purpose of October 15 is simple: essentially, coaches and players look forward to it because they can actually take the floor together to get ready for opponents. For fans, though, it's a bit more symbolic. It represents the birth of a new season and is as much a celebration of fan pride and spirit as it is the fact that practices can be held. While the level of activity varies from program to program, most involve some kind of pre-Madness get-together. At Oakland, where such traditions are still forming, this has changed from year to year, though there always seems to be some kind of free food! Last year's rendition had considerable build-up as a long line of fans formed outside of the O'Rena waiting for the doors to open for the madness to begin. While a majority of the people there were students, a number of adults and younger children could be seen as well, presumably a mix of the families of alumni, faculty and staff, and community members.

Though some have argued that the concept of Midnight Madness loses its appeal when not held at midnight, the earlier start time gives programs the ability to attract a wider population. Such a mix of families and students is exactly what Oakland must continue to accommodate as it grows its fanbase. As much as some may wish to see tailgating or other shenanigans take place at Oakland, the simple fact remains that Rochester is not built like Ann Arbor or East Lansing (where hoards of students rent or own much of the surrounding properties). It's a great city, but its primary residents - and those of the outlying area - are young adults raising families. For that reason, it makes sense to have fun-time activities for young kids who come along with their parents. At the same time, as the on-campus residential population continues to grow, it'll be increasingly important for the school to ensure that these students are encouraged to attend an event such as Grizz Madness and have fun. After all, these students are those most likely to not only attend subsequent home games, but also be a part of the student cheering section.

Tonight one can only hope there will be a number of students and community members who show up to Grizz Madness and have a great time. The program has some intense momentum right now, and there is no doubt that returning fans will create an atmosphere of excitement in the O'Rena. Now we just need to hope that the new faces will be swept up by the spirit and find themselves eager to buy tickets or, in the case of students, simply show up to future games since they are free. As fans, we know this can happen; anyone who was at the season opener against Eastern Michigan can tell you the O'Rena and student section were buzzing early on. However, right now is an important time in the program's climb. We can not settle for what we have achieved lately. Just as Coach Kampe and his staff will push the team to build on last season's success, we as fans must recognize the need to continue to support our program in the effort to increase the reputation of this program and this school. And it all begins tonight, at the stroke of 8:00pm.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Team Trends In The Summit League

The typical conference preview might end with a projection of the final standings. As fun as it may be to project wins and losses, we thought we'd go in a different direction with our prognostication methods. In lieu of a straight-up list, we've opted to discuss the general trend of each team in The Summit League heading into the 2010-11 season. For each program, there are three trends that could be applied: forward, backward, or neutral. In assigning a trending label, we've considered the team's overall 2009-10 season, the way in which the previous season concluded, off-season personnel losses and gains, and a final factor that we're calling "the feeling."

Centenary Gents
It may seem impossible for a team that went 3-15 in the conference to get any worse, but this could very well be the case for Centenary in 2010-11. In its final year of Division I competition, the program will field a team full of scrappy players who may be destined for success in Division III but will ultimately struggle against more seasoned talent in the conference. First-year coach Adam Walsh will have his hands full in attempting to keep his guys motivated throughout a season where the losses will surely pile up. The team could surprise us all in a few games (and we hope they do), but the reality is that the playing field just won't be level for Centenary.

IPFW Mastodons
The Mastodons put together a respectable season in 2009-10, its first of the winning variety since moving up to Division I. What strikes me most about last year's campaign is that IPFW managed to come up above .500 without a star player. Deilvez Yearby was a strong player for the Mastodons, but Coach Dane Fife really did a great job of maximizing the contributions of a group of players who simply knew their roles. In 2010-11, Fife loses a few of his key players of the past, so his team's success will further depend on his ability to plug in the right pieces at the right times. Fortunately, he'll have a trio of senior guards as well as developing junior big man Trey McCorkle to rely on in time of need. While there are some uncertainties with the Dons this season (mainly depth), my gut tells me that senior leadership and the natural progression of other players will result in a forward trend.

IUPUI Jaguars
While Oakland was dominating the conference schedule last season, IUPUI was doing enough to stay just a game or two behind the Golden Grizzlies. A season like Oakland's only comes around so often, and yet the Jaguars were doing everything they could to spoil it. Ron Hunter's squad ended the season with just three losses, and in any other year that probably would have been enough to represent The Summit League in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately (for IUPUI fans), this was not the case. Heading into 2010-11, the Jaguars will need to replace a hefty portion of their scoring and rebounding lost due to graduation. While the team will have its fair share of junior and senior leaders (as well as a star in Alex Young), I'm afraid that such intangibles will not be enough for the program compete at its 09-10 level. With that said, a drop-off from three losses to five or so shouldn't be enough to shake the IUPUI faithful.

UMKC Kangaroos
The Kangaroos were able to eek out six wins last season, a total that will prove challenging to match in 2010-11. As seems to have become common in Kansas City, the program experienced more roster turnover this off-season, losing two of its most productive players who opted to transfer to new schools. If UMKC is able to win six games in The Summit League, it will reflect well on Coach Matt Brown's coaching because his roster, at least on paper, does not stack up well against many teams in the conference. However, there will also be many opportunities for players to make an impact, and with several unknown commodities, the Roos could easily surprise some of their opponents. There is also the possibility that the team finds some motivation from playing in its smaller, more intimate on-campus arena for home games. Even though IPFW, North Dakota State, and South Dakota State will look to contend for spots in the upper-crust of the conference, my gut tells me that UMKC will win a few games against these opponents, yet largely stay within the .275-.375 range it has finished in over the last few seasons.

NDSU Bison
There will be a lot of fresh blood in Fargo this season as the NDSU program welcomes the addition of three new freshman and two guys coming off first-year redshirts. The newbies will have to work hard to crack the line-up as there are several seasoned veterans in front of them, led by senior Michael Tveidt and junior Eric Carlson. This squad is chock-full of guards and small forwards, which will work against several of the teams that NDSU will compete against for seeding in the conference tournament (SDSU, IPFW, IUPUI); however, their lack of experienced big men may prove to be their downfall against the conference's elite (OU, ORU). Still, the Bison should hover around the .500 mark, meaning they'll trend in a neutral direction in 2010-11.

Oakland Golden Grizzlies
It's virtually impossible for a team to run the table during conference play these days, especially in mid-major leagues like The Summit League where teams are especially competitive. The fact that Oakland got through the conference schedule with just one loss in 2009-10, then, is downright unbelievable. To match or exceed such a record in 2010-11 would be beyond anyone's wildest dreams, yet if the various pieces come together, there's reason to believe it could happen. Realistically, one would expect the Grizzlies to have at least a couple of letdowns during the conference season. However, they'll still be one of the top teams come season's end and a legitimate contender to earn a second-straight automatic NCAA Tournament bid on March 8, 2011.

Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
There is no mistaking that Oral Roberts is on the up-and-up going into 2010-11. The team will be without the old brute Kevin Ford but returns nearly every other contributor from a strong 2009-10 campaign. The list of guys who can make an impact is seemingly endless, from a quartet of strong guards to superb wingman Dominique Morrison to banger Michael Craion. Damen Bell-Holter should come along some more in his second season, providing the Golden Eagles with a paint presence lost by the graduation of Ford. These dudes will be looking to prove that they can be just as successful as ORU teams of past, giving the school its best chance of getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007-08.

SDSU Jackrabbits
The Jacks had a strong outing in 2009-10, posting a 10-8 record within the conference and finally winning a few games on the road. Though the team lost its first round game against IPFW in The Summit League Tournament (in what was an overwhelming home game for SDSU), the season as a whole still reflected well on the program. Coach Scott Nagy has a strong recruiting class coming in this season to go along with several staples from last year. Those recruits, primarily Jordan Dykstra, will need to make an immediate impact in order for South Dakota State to do as well as it did last season. Long-term, this program is definitely trending upward, but I believe they'll take a step back in 2010-11 while some of their new cogs gain much-needed experience playing Division I ball.

Southern Utah Thunderbirds
Davis Baker was a beast for Southern Utah over the course of his career with the Thunderbirds. In fact, he was the only double-digit scorer on the team in 2009-10. While that may be more of a result of SUU's tendency to distribute its scoring amongst all its players, there is still cause for concern in Cedar City now that Baker has used up his eligibility. Quite frankly, it's super difficult to project the program's successes or failures due to the fact its land-locked on the western side of the country with little media coverage. Judging solely by our "feeling" standard mentioned at the beginning of this post, there may not be many reasons to get stoked about Southern Utah in 2010-11.

Western Illinois Leathernecks
Coach Jim Molinari clearly has his program on the rise, but the results for the upcoming season will depend as much as ever on his coaching and training. There are hardly any newcomers entering the fold this season, and he loses scoring guard David Nurse as well as James Granstra, a player who gave the Leathernecks an extra body in the paint. However, junior Ceola Clark is about as sure a thing as you'll find in the conference and David Gebru, who enters his second season, is an interesting prospect who could provide a spark in the post for WIU if he was able to add some muscle to his 6'10" frame during the off-season. Picking WIU to improve on its 6-12 conference record of a year ago may be gutsy, but if there is a team that has the chance to surprise people, it's Western Illinois.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Best Case/Worst Case Scenarios In The Summit League

The great thing about the months leading up to the start of the college basketball season is that fans have hope. It doesn't matter whether your team won a conference championship or finished with three wins in the last campaign because the beginning of fall brings with it excitement surrounding new players, improved returners, and fresh opponents. Different teams may have differing goals; for example, the program with a new coach and seven new players may seek to simply stay competitive, win the games it can, and build for the future. The powerhouse school returning four experienced seniors, on the other hand, may have national title aspirations. Whatever the case, every school goes into the new season expecting to accomplish its best case scenario for the year. However, as we know, some teams can't reach that point without other teams failing to achieve their own goals. With that said, we're taking a look at the various best and worst case scenarios for The Summit League teams in 2010-11, knowing full well that a few teams will experience the bliss of the best case and others pain of the worst variety.

Best Case: No matter the case, it will be an incredibly long season for new Head Coach Adam Walsh and his Centenary Gents squad in 2010-11. This will be the program's last season as a Summit League and Division I member, so Walsh will most likely have to motivate his guys by telling them to enjoy the ride while it lasts. The Gents just recently filled out their roster, and fans better hope those last few spots were earned by hard-working, quality-character individuals because they surely won't stack up well against Summit League foes in the talent department. If Walsh's guys play their butts off, there is a chance Centenary could win a few games or pull off an upset or two that could alter the conference standings a bit.

Worst Case: Hopefully the Gents can pick up an early home win against Arkansas-Monticello because their remaining non-conference slate will be tough. There is a legitimate shot the team could head into the true conference portion of the season with a 1-12 (0-2) record, though two wins are possible. A record like that should give one an indication of how they'd fare the rest of the season. It won't be pretty.

Best Case: A third place finish is not out of the question for IPFW in 2010-11. I'm of the opinion that Oral Roberts and Oakland will battle for the top two spots, and while IUPUI is likely to be in that mix, there are still a lot of lingering questions in my mind about the Jaguars. Therefore, we could see a solid IPFW team - which beat SDSU in Sioux Falls last season to make it to the semis of the conference tournament - battle for that third position. The Mastodons have a fairly manageable non-conference schedule and rather balanced conference portion which should guarantee them a second-straight winning season. Coach Dane Fife has slowly but surely built the IPFW program to the point now where its fans should reasonably expect a solid regular season and decent conference tournament showing.

Worst Case: A top-five finish is probably a more realistic prediction for the Mastodons this season, though clearly not the worst. If that were to happen, we'd likely see the Dons lose a few of its early-season games, including the Toledo and UT-Martin dates at home. Suffering from a lack of confidence due to November and December struggles, the team would limp its way through Summit League play, ending the season with a sub-.500 record and first-round exit from the conference tournament.

Best Case: The Jaguars will have as experienced a backcourt as one will find in The Summit League this season. John Ashworth and Leroy Nobles will need to utilize their experience in helping lead the team because forward Alex Young won't be able to carry them to a championship by himself. Young, entering his junior season, will be the featured player for IUPUI for the first time, following the graduation of Robert Glenn. He'll need to have a Player Of The Year kind of season to ensure his team's spot at the top of the conference standings. If he does this - and the Jags receive some contributions from new freshmen - then the team can reasonably expect a top-three finish.

Worst Case: IUPUI managed to have a stellar season in 2009-10 despite a lack of scoring distribution. Case in point: around 94% of the team's scoring game from a total of six players, and three of those players who alone accounted for 45% of the team's points per game have since graduated. Those three - Robert Glenn, Jon Avery, and Billy Pettiford - were all around 6'7" players who made significant contributions on the glass as well. Outside of Coach Ron Hunter's starting five and sixth man from last year, only two other players - freshmen Greg Rice and Sean Esposito - played what one could describe as significant minutes, and both are guards. Rice and Esposito should make strides in their second season, but they'll be playing behind the team's two most experienced guards throughout. What this means is that IUPUI will be incredibly inexperienced and undersized in the frontcourt; perhaps not so much against the lower-echelon of The Summit League, but certainly against favorites Oakland and Oral Roberts. Freshman Michael Patton, a 6'9" product, could play immediately due to the team's lack of depth in the paint, but big men most often struggle to make an impact in their first year in this conference. I don't expect the Jags to fall out of the top five by season's end, but they might be destined for an otherwise mediocre season highlighted by great individual performances from Alex Young.

Best Case: We wrote about UMKC's schedule extensively in our preview, but to keep the story short here, the Kangaroos have a non-conference schedule full of cupcakes. UMKC will play a whole bunch of fringe Division I schools, teams that the Roos should beat in a best case scenario. Assuming losses at Kansas, Kansas State, and Wichita State, there is a realistic possibility the Kansas City-based school ends up with seven or eight wins prior to beginning the bulk of its Summit League games. The winning record could give the team a confidence boost, leading them to a just below .500 record in conference play. Despite what will surely be a very low RPI and strength of schedule, at year's end the 2010-11 season would largely be looked upon as a success by UMKC administrators and fans.

Worst Case: The reality of the situation is that UMKC lost two of its top three scorers from last season in Trey McKinney-Jones and Latreze Mushatt, who ended up at the University of Miami and Murray State, respectively. Perhaps the two guys didn't fit in the locker room or grew tired of the losing at UMKC, but they had talent or otherwise they wouldn't be playing for an ACC squad and a team that went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March. Player turnover has been a bit of a thorn in the side of the program recently, but maybe - just maybe - this season will bring some stability for Coach Matt Brown. Even so, the team will be working with talent that just doesn't stack up with the best in the conference. At worst, the team could finish just ahead of Centenary and out of the league tournament, with hope that key pieces will stick around for the next year.

North Dakota State
Best Case: North Dakota State tricked us all. During its first year of post-season eligibility (2008-2009), the team absolutely dominated The Summit League en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance. Then, a historic group of seniors graduated, leaving behind a squad of players who had a lot to live up to. The Bison players were not bad in 2009-2010, but they sure were not too memorable either. Aside from Michael Tveidt, the current roster lacks the standout dudes who were present during that magical run two seasons ago. Add to that the fact the program is isolated over in Fargo and you have the formula for a team for which prognosticating proves difficult. For example, the Bison could trick us all again in 2010-11, showing up with a focused, hard-working group of guys playing incredible team basketball. If that's the case, they could easily be in the mix for a top-four finish in The Summit League.

Worst Case: On the other hand, the Bison could be fairly underwhelming again this season. Tveidt may "get his" and will his team to a few victories, but one player's efforts only go so far. Realistically, it'd be impossible for the Bison to finish at the bottom of this league; the coaching and general hard-working vibe that North Dakota State recruits seem to emit simply won't allow that to happen. However, Coach Saul Phillips could continue to struggle to achieve the kind of success that made his program a national favorite just two years ago while he waits for some of his new talents to gain valuable experience.

Best Case: Clearly, Oakland's best case scenario would involve a second straight Summit League championship. However, the path to get those rings is far from guaranteed. Oakland brings back a solid roster, but the loss of Derick Nelson and Johnathon Jones results in some uncertainty at the small forward and point guard positions. Seniors Will Hudson and Keith Benson provide stability in the paint, but the offense will need to be facilitated and the team will need a shutdown defender to emerge on the wing. The Golden Grizzlies do not suffer from a lack of players who could fill either of these roles, but until it actually happens, some skepticism will ensue. With that said, this is about Oakland's best case which would mean some combination of Drew Maynard, Blake Cushingberry, and Drew Valentine providing solid defense at the forward position and Reggie Hamilton finding his niche as Oakland's starting point guard. Make this happen and Oakland will be darn tough to beat.

Worst Case: Perhaps Oakland's "point guard by committee" concept doesn't go exactly as planned, meaning Hamilton, Larry Wright, and Ledrick Eackles never fully embrace the distributor role, instead opting to score, score, and score. If their shots fall, the team would be okay, but that's a tough way to live. Furthermore, most of the premiere talent in The Summit League will rest on the wing this season, where Derick Nelson will no longer be available to fill the roll of defensive stopper. If Drew Maynard doesn't make some serious leaps in his defensive ability, then players like ORU's Dominique Morrison, IUPUI's Alex Young, and NDSU's Michael Tveidt will exploit this weakness on their way to torching the Golden Grizzlies. The positive play of Benson likely wouldn't be enough to get the team past ORU, leaving Oakland to end the season with a top-three finish.

Oral Roberts
Best Case: The expectations in Tulsa are high this season, as they should be. Oral Roberts returns most of its significant pieces from last season (sans Kevin Ford) and welcome back several players who missed the previous year due to injuries. The emergence of Michael Craion as a legitimate banger should help alleviate the loss of Ford, and sophomore Damen Bell-Holter should continue to progress after turning in a serviceable freshman performance in the paint off the bench last year. Dominique Morrison and Warren Niles will look to match or improve upon their impressive 2009-10 outings. From top-to-bottom, the Golden Eagles have the most stacked roster in The Summit League. While many of these players may not have the deep tournament experience that so many former ORU players are accustomed to having, Coach Scott Sutton surely does and will have his troops prepared to take down the reigning champs from Rochester, Michigan. Simply put, Oral Roberts has the best shot at cutting down the nets in Sioux Falls.

Worst Case: Perhaps Oral Roberts will miss Kevin Ford more than predicted, especially if Bell-Holter doesn't start to step up to fill that role, which could make the team susceptible in the paint. The team will also have a bit of a log-jam in the back-court, where Ken Holdman will look to keep his starting role over transfer Rod Pearson (who played four games last season before going down with a season-ending knee injury) and redshirt freshman Hunter McClinktock (a touted recruit who missed last year with a torn ACL). Solid guard Warren Niles will also be back there looking to match his 2009-10 output levels. While it's always great to have that much talent, there's also a chance that a lack of playing time leads to chemistry issues. That's about the only thing holding back the Golden Eagles from a run at the conference crown.

South Dakota State
Best Case: The Jackrabbits will be entering the 2010-11 season with more games under their collective belts than any other Summit League team thanks to a four-game trip Winnepeg at the end of August. This experience will prove helpful as SDSU will have five freshmen this season looking to fill out roster spots around familiar names like Clint Sargent and Griffan Callahan. If true freshmen Jordan Dykstra and Marcus Heemstra are able to make an immediate impact on the wing and in the paint, then the Jacks may be poised for a rather successful season. Coach Scott Nagy successfully secured a number of great non-conference home games which should further increase the Jacks' chance of winning early and often. Going into the conference season with a winning record could do wonders for the team's confidence, leading them past the likes of IUPUI into top-three consideration with Oakland and Oral Roberts. Given the huge fan advantage the team has in Sioux Falls, it'd be awful difficult to beat a driven Jacks team come conference tournament time.

Worst Case: While South Dakota State returns several key players this year, most of them are guards or small forwards. In fact, the only guys above 6'7" on the roster from last season are Tony Fiegen, who played very sparingly, and Dwight Pederson, a transfer who played in just four games during 2009-10. Needless to say, the Heemstra/Dykstra freshmen combo should be heavily relied upon for the Brookings-based team next season. These two are proven winners in high school, but if they are unable to make a measurable impact early on in their college careers, then SDSU may be destined for a middle-of-the-pack finish in 2010-11.

Southern Utah
Best Case: Southern Utah is one of those isolated teams, so far away with so little coverage it's difficult to predict how they'll do from year to year. So in writing about the Thunderbirds, I'm taking some liberties. If I were a diehard SUU fan, though, I'm sure I'd be happy to see some progress. In this case, progress could be measured by qualifying for The Summit League tournament. While the T-Birds would likely face a first round exit, just getting there would be an accomplishment for a team that has struggled mightily in the past few seasons.

Worst Case: If Southern Utah finds itself outside of the conference tournament again, no one would be surprised. Another losing season in Cedar City would continue to drive Summit League enthusiasts mad, making them wonder why the Thunderbirds continue to be a representative of the conference. The loss of scoring guard Davis Baker would seem to indicate that Roger Reid and Company are in for another long season.

Western Illinois
Best Case: The key to WIU's success in 2010-11 will be if the players around Ceola Clark can make strides in their offensive ability. While the Leathernecks held opponents to 60 points per game last season (no doubt led by Clark, the team's defensive specialist), they only scored 59, by far the lowest in the conference. There is nothing wrong with controlling the tempo, but you have to put points on the board when it matters. Clark is certainly capable of doing it on his own, in every sense. He averaged 14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 2.7 steals per game last year as a sophomore on his way to earning Summit League Defensive Player of the Year. It's scary to think he could actually improve on those numbers this season, potentially putting himself in Player of the Year contention. If his teammates help him out, then Western Illinois has a shot at a top-five conference finish. In order to do that, the Leathernecks will need to dispatch of teams like SUU, UMKC, and Centenary while at least splitting matches against NDSU, SDSU, IPFW. This is all that separates WIU from a 2009-10 repeat and a rare winning season.

Worst Case: Last season, David Nurse was the second leading scorer for the Leathernecks with 9.2 points per game. In other words, Clark was the only double-digit scorer for WIU in 2009-10, and the next best scorer has since graduated. Furthermore, the team welcomes just two new additions this season, one is a player from France and the other is Head Coach Jim Molinari's son who is eligible after redshirting his freshman season. In other words, the roster this season hasn't changed a whole lot, meaning Western Illinois will need its returning players to make some very large leaps in order to improve on last year's record. Otherwise, they should expect another subpar season in Macomb this year.