Thursday, November 11, 2010

Game Preview: Oakland at West Virginia

Game 1: Oakland (0-0) at West Virginia (0-0)
Friday, November 12, 2010 | 9:00pm

Finally! It's college hoops time! Eight months have passed since we last saw the Oakland Golden Grizzlies take to the court for meaningful basketball action. This season will start much like the last one ended for Oakland: against a Big East opponent. The West Virginia Mountaineers were a Final Four team last year but enter 2010-11 without three of their top contributors from that run. While a slew of players are back, most are unproven and will be looking to show they have what it takes to keep WVU atop the Big East. The Golden Grizzlies will aim to start the season strong after winning The Summit League in 2009-10. Three starters return for OU, who along with a few new additions are determined to match the success of last season. The game tips at 9:00pm. To get you ready for the big opener, we've put together a preview of the match-up.

Heart And Soul
While both of these squads return a lot talent from last year, they've suffered key losses in the leadership department. WVU's Da'Sean Butler and Oakland's Derick Nelson cemented themselves as legends at their respective institutions during their senior campaigns in 2009-10. Butler won several big games for the Mountaineers with his last-second heroics, while Nelson single-handedly lifted Oakland to a conference crown with his 36-point explosion during the championship game. Both of these guys were incredibly clutch and had the ability to will their teams to victory in tough circumstances. It's also worth noting how similarly they ended their careers: both in NCAA Tournament games, both lying on the ground writhing in pain from injuries. The scenes from those moments will likely resonate with fans for ages. Mountaineer and Grizzly fans alike head into this match hoping current players will emerge who have the heart and soul demonstrated by Butler and Nelson.

Cut From The Same Clothe
Bob Huggins and Greg Kampe are proven winners. While Huggins has been in the spotlight more due to where he has won, he and Kampe have each found much success as head coaches in college basketball. The two are also some of the game's loudest people prowling the sidelines, as any one who has followed a Huggins game or sat behind Oakland's bench can surely attest. The comparisons don't end there, however, as both coaches have a fondness for casual work attire. Kampe's sweater vest is a bit more classy than Huggins' sweatsuits, but it's clear that they have no trouble nixing the standard look worn by most of their counterparts. We find it to be refreshing and hope the NCAA never imposes formal restrictions on these men, the torchbearers of informal dress.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Joe Mazzula/Truck Bryant v. Larry Wright/Reggie Hamilton
This will be an interesting battle and quite a test for Oakland's guards. Bryant was injured for much of WVU's Final Four run, though he had established himself as one of the team's better guards during the regular season. Mazzula, on the other hand, didn't rack up big minutes until Bryant's injury, where he filled in nicely. Mazzula and Larry Wright have actually competed against each other before, as recently as the 2007-08 season when Wright was with St. John's. In two meetings against the Mountaineers, Larry was his team's leading scorer in both. Hopefully he can use that experience as motivation to show the Big East what they've been missing out on. He'll need Hamilton to be effective in order for him to get some open looks, which will prove difficult against this experienced backcourt that plays tough defense.

WVU Player To Watch: Kevin Jones
It will be interesting to see who will start out guarding Kevin Jones during this game because on paper the Grizzlies do not have anyone who matches up well with the big forward. Jones will be WVU's leading man this season, looking to replace the scoring and rebounding void left by NBA draft pick Devin Ebanks and under-appreciated big Wellington Smith. The hopes are high for this player, and he'll be looking to have a big game early on to quell any doubts. He could very easily go off in this game because Oakland lacks a player with his size or versatility at the position. Fortunately for Oakland fans, he could have a bit of difficulty getting his points in the paint if Keith Benson and Will Hudson are defending particularly well and snatching up defensive rebounds. Still, Jones can "get his" in a variety of ways and should be watched closely.

Oakland Player To Watch: Keith Benson
Benson is a beast. He will be looking to come out strong against top-level competition in this game. It is conceivable that he and Jones could, at times, play opposite each other, in which case Benson would absolutely need to show he can handle Jones in the paint. Jones is a player who many expect to have a breakout season in 2010-11, but Benson is more seasoned and has the stronger post game. Another guy who will likely spend time guarding Benson is Deniz Kilicli. The Turkish big man debuted for the Mountaineers in the middle of last season with much hype but produced very little, especially in the rebounding department. After WVU's exhibition match last Friday, coach Bob Huggins joked that Kilicli's two rebounds were more than he had all last season. Clearly, he's a work in progress on the defensive end, so Benson's chances of succeeding appear to be high.

Oakland and West Virginia have never met on the basketball court. Oakland is 0-6 against Big East teams in the last five years. West Virginia is 4-1 over Summit League teams in the last decade, the sole loss coming by the hands of Valparaiso in 2001-2002. Coach Kampe and his Grizzlies faced Bob Huggins' Cincinnati teams three times early in Oakland's Division I era (1998, 2000, and 2003). All three games were played at Cincinnati and were losses for the then newly-minted Golden Grizzlies.

Opponent Q&A
In an attempt to learn more about tonight's opponent, the Gameplan sent a few burning questions over to's West Virginia Mountaineers blog, the Smoking Musket. The responses:

Aside from Kevin Jones, what 2-3 players do you see stepping up this year to provide scoring for the Mountaineers?

SM: Joe Mazzulla simply has to [step up]. He's a fifth year senior who's been hindered by shoulder problems the last few years, but he seems as healthy as ever according to published reports. Dalton Pepper, Casey Mitchell and Truck Bryant also need to overcome the inconsistency they all had last year.

What kind of expectations do fans have for Deniz Kilicli this season? Is he a projected starter? How much can he improve his rebounding numbers given starter's minutes and a full season of play?

SM: Kilicli could possibly be a starter by year's end, but I think he'll start out as the first forward/center off the bench. The sky's the limit with his potential to improve on the defensive end, meaning that's where he was severely lacking last year and Huggins had a very short leash on him when he missed a defensive assignment or was completely out of rebounding position. He's an inside scorer and after spending a year with Huggs and his system, the rebounding numbers are sure to improve.

Who is an under-the-radar player on WVU to watch out for in the game against Oakland?

SM: Sophomore Danny Jennings. He is a unknown commodity to WVU fans, but we're very anxious to see him play, given his frame and build. Great story that Huggs shared with the local media:
Huggins told a story of how Jennings, a forward at 6-foot-8, 265 pounds, was urged by WVU's strength coach Andy Kettler to take up boxing in an effort to improve his footwork around the basket.

"After Danny knocked (redshirt junior forward) Cam Thoroughman out with one punch to start the boxing class, no one would get into the ring with him," Huggins said. "So I'm not sure if it helped his footwork or not."
Will Mazzula and Bryant play together as a sort of combo-guard backcourt, and if so, do you see one taking on the role of facilitator more than the other? Is Bryant's foot fully healed? What are the strengths of these two guards? Weaknesses?

SM: The general expectation is to see both of them on the floor together at times. If Truck can/has overcome the inconsistency he's displayed in the past, I believe he will be more of the facilitator and Mazzulla the slasher/driver. Reports are yes, Truck is healed and ready to go.

Mazzulla - leadership (he's been there before, especially in the biggest games), defense, toughness and absolute drive to win
Bryant - this is kind of a backhanded compliment, but his biggest strength is that he's going to get better - last year there were times when he was amazing, and then he'd turn around and put up a "what was that?" shot or throw it directly to the other team

Mazzulla - shooting range - with the shoulder problems, he was hesitant (and rightly so) to take the outside look last year. If the shoulders are truly healed, the confidence may need rebuilt a bit to take that shot
Bryant - the maddening inconsistency

The Extra Pass
Oakland is not the only team to have started the practice season without one of its players due to suspension. West Virginia's senior guard Casey Mitchell was suspended indefinitely just shortly after Midnight Madness. Just as Mitchell's suspension ended, Bob Huggins dished out the same punishment to freshman Noah Cottril who was expected to contribute this season. All of these off the court issues prompted Rush The Court to wonder if it will impact the team on the court:

Reports coming from preseason practices aren't too encouraging. Huggins recently told the Charleston Gazette that freshmen Kevin Noreen and Noah Cottrill "look lost" at practice. And that was after Cottrill sparked rumors when he was introduced but didn’t participate in West Virginia's Midnight Madness. There also was the case of Casey Mitchell, who was suspended for a violation of team rules but is now back with the team. These aren't the kinds of stories that equate to success in the regular season. This year might be one to forget in Morgantown.

While it's still too early to discount the Mountaineers altogether, there is definitely reason to wonder about the team's depth beyond the trio of Jones, Bryant, and Mazzula (Mazzula has been no bastion of character either, as this summer he broke the law for his third time while at WVU). For what it's worth, current Los Angeles Laker Devin Ebanks was also suspended at the start of last season, but he managed to have a successful year on his way to getting a Final Four ring with West Virginia. There are definitely some distractions with this team heading into the new season, but don't be surprised if the team is still as tough as ever against Oakland.

You can discuss the game before, during, and after at the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum (no affiliation to this blog, but a great community of OU fans): Game Thread.


  1. Definitely concerned about Kevin Jones. He looks to be the type of chiseled force in the paint that could give either Benson or Hudson major problems. According to the Blue Ribbon preview: "He [Jones] came in at 215 and now he's 255 and his body fat is down." That kind of muscle will be tough to handle. Having said that, I expect this game to be competetive at the very least. Go Grizzlies.

  2. Great in-depth preview. It will be interesting to see if the tough, more physical Big East defense can get the best of Oakland in the opener. Limiting the turnovers and getting the ball into Kito will be important for the Grizzlies. If they can establish the big man early, then the outside game could get some good looks (or vice versa).

  3. Great stuff. Looking forward to seeing how our defense reacts, as that will no doubt be the biggest thing we lose from last year.

    Go OU!