Friday, January 7, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland vs. Western Illinois

Game 19: Oakland (10-8, 5-0) vs Western Illinois (6-8, 1-3)
Saturday, January 8, 2011 | 6:00pm EST
Watch: OU All-Access ($) | Radio: WXOU (88.3FM)

After taking care of business against IUPUI on Thursday night, Oakland will welcome an injury-ravaged Western Illinois team to the O'rena on Saturday evening. The Golden Grizzlies have had an explosive offense in conference play thus far, averaging a stellar 1.21 points per possession through five contests. Such scoring will be tested by the Fighting Leathernecks who are giving up 1.026 points per possession in Summit League play, a figure that is good for fifth in the conference despite the team's 1-3 start. This one will be a test of Oakland's offense versus the Jim Molinari-coached defense of Western.

Injuries Piling Up
There are a few Summit League teams attempting to get through early action in league play without some key players. Oral Roberts' situation has probably been the most documented, as that team is without last year's Newcomer of the Year in Michael Craion and, more recently, perennial Player of the Year contender Dominique Morrison. Oakland, too, has battled some injuries, with ankle problems limiting Larry Wright and Ledrick Eackles in recent contests. However, off in Macomb, Illinois, the Fighting Leathernecks of Western Illinois have been hit hard as well, especially when one considers the team's lack of proven depth. According to a recent team report on, here are just a few of the nagging injuries impacting this squad:
- Among the walking wounded, none of the players out currently are more valuable than guard Ceola Clark III, the reigning Summit League defensive player of the team and a first-team all-conference selection on the preseason team. Clark suffered a toe injury in Western Illinois’ Summit League opener against Oral Roberts and was to be re-evaluated at some point in the days prior to the Leathernecks’ Jan. 6 contest against IPFW.

- Sophomore 6-foot-10 C David Gebru out for the season with knee injury.

- Junior F Emeka Okafor Jr. missed the IUPUI game on Dec. 30 due to a sprained ankle but made a brief appearance off the bench two days later as Western Illinois defeated Purdue Calumet by a mere three points.

- Sophomore post Abdou Niang was battling a fractured thumb.

- G Billy Molinari, a redshirt freshman and the son of coach Jim Molinari, had not played through Jan. 2 since injuring his foot in Western Illinois’ season opener.

- Junior F Kaimarr Price, who missed the Leathernecks’ first two Summit League games in early December due to injury, returned to action and was averaging 13.25 points per game in the four contests prior to the Jan. 6 game against IPFW.
Brutal. Just brutal. It remains to be seen if Clark or the younger Molinari will see action tonight or for the rest of this season. From a story after WIU's New Year's Day game, Coach Molinari said this particularly cryptic note:
But coach Molinari was not optimistic about the return of Ceola Clark III or Billy Molinari any time soon – if at all this season.
"My opinion is this is probably our group," said coach Molinari of the team, minus Clark III, Billy Molinari and David Gebru, who injured a knee last month and will miss the rest of the season.
"That's how we're going to have to play," coach Molinari added. "We're decimated by injuries, so we have no options."
Coach Molinari is in the third season of a gigantic rebuilding process, and these injuries are doing nothing in the way of allowing the coach to build on the momentum his team had at the close of 2009-10.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Oakland offensive efficiency vs. Western Illinois defensive efficiency
Jim Molinari is only in his third season with Western Illinois, but he's already done his best to implement his defensive philosophy. In his first season, the team regressed a bit in terms of defensive efficiency, but he had his boys near the top of The Summit League in the measure last season (.97 points allowed per possession). It should come as no surprise then that the league's Defensive Player of the Year least season, Ceola Clark, came from the Leatherneck program. Clark has been injured for much of this season, yet WIU continues to be in the better half of the league in defensive efficiency. However, Molinari's teams haven't exactly been getting things done ofmthe offensive end of the court, or at least not enough for the defensive efforts to mean much in the long run. Oakland leads the conference in both offensive and defensive points per possession, a deadly combination which explains why the team has won nearly every conference game running away. WIU will need a massive effort against OU to overcome that.

Western Illinois Player To Watch: Matt Lander
Matt Lander, who came to WIU through the junior college route, is having an all-conference kind of senior season. With the graduation of David Nurse and Ceola Clark hampered with an injury, the Fighting Leathernecks really needed a new scoring threat to emerge this season, and Lander has more than filled that role. His 17.4 points per game are fourth in the conference, and he also chips in with 2.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. With Oakland's own injury problems and rotating backcourt, it's anyone's guess as to who will spend time guarding Lander on Saturday. At 6-foot-4, we wouldn't mind seeing Drew Valentine get a chance to guard Number 24 considering how well he handled Alex Young on Thursday.

Oakland Player To Watch: Keith Benson
In his last two home games (IUPUI and Valparaiso), Keith Benson has scored just 14 points and grabbed only 6 rebounds. While he did have a number of entertaining blocks against IUPUI, the home fans haven't had much of a chance to cheer on Kito on the offensive end of the game as of late. The Western Illinois frontcout was supposed to be fronted by James Granstra this year, but he decided not to play his senior year since he already had his degree. David Gebru, a developing sophomore big, would have had a shot to play more minutes this season in the post, yet he went down with a season-ending injury in December. That leaves the Fighting Leathernecks frontcourt with just one banger in 6-foot-8 Kaimarr Price, a first-year junior player who has proven his worth on the glass by averaging 6.6 boards per game. Opposing bigs, no matter how undersized they may appear to be, always seem to get up for the Oakland games, yet one can only hope the OU players can get Benson involved early and often. It's time for the O'rena to explode with some #omgdunx from Mr. Benson.

Oakland has a history of dominance over the Western Illinois program. Since the 1999-2000 season, the Golden Grizzlies are 21-3 against the Fighting Leathernecks. Two of those losses have come in Rochester, the most recent a 64-63 decision during the 2006-2007 season.

Opponent Q&A
To get some perspective on this year's Western Illinois team, we contacted someone who has seen this team up close in every game this season: play-by-play man Kyle Schassburger. Schassburger is a senior at WIU and calls the team's games for The Leatherneck Sports Network. As is true of any good radio man, we quickly found out in our Q&A that Schassburger has a way with words. Our exchange occurred prior to WIU's loss at IPFW on Thursday.

How would you characterize WIU's non-conference season and early results in Summit League play? What aspects of the team's game have been clicking and which could use improving yet?

KS: The non-conference schedule has been challenging in the aspect that nothing comes easy for the men's basketball program at Western Illinois University. Coach Molinari and his staff were able to get a bid into the prestigious Cancun Challenge early in the year, which was a huge stepping stone for a program that is looking to earn respect. And game one of the tournament, played at 14th-ranked Mizzou, still shines as possibly the best played game of the year for Western, losing by 5 to the Tigers. Molinari scheduled the weaker opponents that he has to help balance his schedule with more games at home, where the team is now 4-1 after clipping NAIA Purdue Calumet a week ago. But this 6-7 Western Illinois team is playing no where close to its potential, thanks to the injury bug. Sophomore big David Gebru was lost for the season in the second half against Culver Stockton, and the reigning Summit League Defensive Player of the Year Ceola Clark dislocated his toe in the final fram against ORU at home. Clark is a warrior, and so is freshman Billy Molinari (who has missed but all 3 minutes in the season opener due to a foot injury). Both players have been working their tails off to get back to the court, and I would not count either out. The time table is hard to picture however on when they can get back. So when you don't have your whole team, and especially the playmaker in point guard Ceola Clark, it is hard to keep tabs on what has been working for the Leathernecks. JUCO transfer Kaimarr Price has beefed up his inside game and senior Matt Lander continues to do what a senior does. Western prides itself on defense, and that hasn't changed despite the injuries, it will win them ballgames. But free throw shooting has been attrocious (62%) and that figure needs to improve drastically.

Ceola Clark has been absent for much of the past month with an injury. Can you describe the nature of his injury and how it has affected him? For folks who haven't had a chance to see much of WIU, why is it important for the team to have a healthy Clark on the floor?

KS: Any injury is going to hurt a team, especially in basketball when your team is made of no more than 13-15 guys usually. But the absence of Ceola has hindered greatly what this team can do. He is a high-motor guy, one who brings up the enthusiasm of everyone around him. He is versatile and can make plays on both the offensive and defensive ends. As a point guard he was second on the team in rebounds last year behind banger James Granstra, and was 5th in the country with 2.7 steals p/g. And with this being his junior year expectations were through the roof for what he could for this Western team in making the next step in Division I basketball. But with the injury now, it is up for his teammates to feed off of absensce and use it as an opportunity to take their game to the next level. Hopefully for Leatherneck fans, there is good news awaiting down the road when Western needs to make a serious push at playing its best basketball heading into the Summit League Tournament.

Matt Lander is having a breakout senior season, leading the team in scoring on rather great shooting percentages. There were some stretches of his junior campaign where he struggled to get minutes or double figures, yet this season he's playing 35 minutes per game and has never scored less than 12 points in a game. What factors have contributed to Lander becoming the focal point of the offense this season, and what about the player allows him to score at such an impressive rate?

KS: Lander is a special player in that he did exactly what he should have during the offseason, and that's work to find consistency. Last year he struggled to find that. He led Western in scoring against both ASU and K-State, with 20 against Frank Martin's Wildcats. Lander is a soft spoken gentleman and a terrific all-around person, and this year he has more so blocked everything out besides playing his game. It does hurt when he has to run the point, which happens frequently with Ceola out, but as a natural 2-guard, he has the uncanny ability to score the basketball. Lander has more confidence than ever in his shot and always looks to drive first, where he is good in getting to the line. With him there just seems to be an extra sense of poise and urgency to take his game to the next level this year, and he is one who has shined with the absence of Clark.

Tell us a bit about the Western Illinois frontcourt. Which players have been playing the most in the post, and who has been most impressive?

KS: David Gebru shot over 60% from the floor before injuring his knee, but Junior Kaimarr Price has stepped up in a huge way. A late addition to this Western team, the 6'7 big is leading the team in rebounding, blocks, field goal percentage, and is second in scoring with Clark out of the picture. Price is a phenomenal passer for his size and has excellent defensive awareness. Without Gebru though, others such as Emeka Okafor Jr. need to establish their role in helping the big man Price out underneath. Okafor had 7 rebounds in 14 minutes against Creighton, a game in which WIU outrebounded the Blue Jays despite their lack of depth inside, 34-32. Abdou Niang and Jack Houpt are perimeter players who can shoot the ball at 6'9 and 6'7 respectively, but may need to play big inside at times against more athletic larger lineups.

As a member of the WIU radio crew, what do you enjoy most about being a part of the Fighting Leatherneck program? Additionally, what Summit League destinations have you found most enjoyable? What opposing arena is your favorite to call a game in?

KS: Calling every game for Leatherneck Men's Basketball for the past two years has been the ultimate highlight of my undergraduate career at Western Illinois University. Nothing compares to being a part of the team as a radio broadcaster during all the travels, triumphs, and tears that acompany Division I college basketball. Nearly every trip has their own splendors that I have come to enjoy, and it is hard to separate them in conference. If I had to pick, I vote the city of Fargo as my favorite broadcasting destination. I have called two football victories in the Fargodome but am in search of the first win in the Bison Sports Arena. Nonetheless, a fantastic city rich with history. But every game with Oakland, IUPUI, and Oral Roberts is always a dandy because of their upper echelon status in the league. And beating ORU in the Mabee Center last season was quite the treat for both myself, and Western Illinois Basketball. So that venue has been the most enjoyable to date.

Many thanks to Kyle for taking time out of his work duties and studies to answer our questions. He gave us as detailed a preview as we've had all season for opposing teams.

Pre-Game Linkage
If you are a current student (or like humorous musings), we'd encourage ya'll to check out the Half-court Press, an underground newsletter published by some enterprising Oakland students. You can check it out digitally here, where there is a link to the PDF version.

As always, if you're interested in getting in on the conversation with other Oakland fans before, during, and after the game, we highly suggest checking out the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum: Game Thread.

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