Monday, February 28, 2011

The Gameplan's Weekly Recap: UMKC/SUU

The Big Picture
Oakland closed its regular season this weekend with a sweep of UMKC and SUU on the longest trip in conference play. The wins came in different ways, one an offensive shootout and the other a defensive effort, but they ultimate sealed a second-straight 17-1 season for the Golden Grizzlies. In the biggest of pictures, hopefully we all get a chance to reflect on what the program has done over the past two years in going 34-2 in conference play. The conference tournament is just a few days away now, but this was another exceptional season for Oakland. Many congrats to the program are due as well as many thanks for providing us with a lot of exciting, and winning, basketball to watch this year.

Winning Basketball
Oakland used a hyper-efficient offensive night against UMKC and a hard-nosed defensive approach against SUU to finish the season as the conference's leader in efficiency on both ends of the court. It didn't always look like this would be the case, especially in the last few weeks, given the explosive SDSU offense and the much-improved ORU defense. But as it stands, Oakland's 1.19 points per possession and 1.00 points allowed per possession stand as tops in both categories. That's a testament to the team's winning ways, an approach that over the course of the season has valued offense just as much as defense. And while statistics often give us more reason to doubt than to champion, this weekend's results, as wacky as they may be, should show the versatility of this team.

Let's consider first the UMKC game. It was a high scoring game on an average number of possessions for Oakland, which led to an incredible scoring rate of 1.40 points per trip. That stands as Oakland's most efficient night in conference play. On the other hand, UMKC went for 1.22 points per trip, again a season-high for points allowed by the Oakland defense. It was, quite simply, a night when the Golden Grizzlies out-performed the opponent on the offensive end. Such games have gone in Oakland's favor all season long in conference play, even against high-powered South Dakota State.

After the UMKC game, Oakland showed off its defensive might against SUU in holding the Thunderbirds to 0.89 points per possession. That stands as the team's best defensive performance of the second-half of conference play, and it lags only behind truly dominant home games against Centenary, UMKC, and Western Illinois for the entirety of league play. On the other side of the ball, the Golden Grizzlies only went for 1.02 points per possession, far below their season average but still quite higher than what they allowed the T-Birds. We've now twice seen in the last two weeks (SUU and NDSU) the team struggle on the offensive end but come out with a win because of its defense.

While we may not be sure of the precise way Oakland will be oriented on a given night, this season's efficiency data shows us that one way or another it will be a winning formula.

Return To Form
Another reason Oakland was successful on this road trip was because of its rebounding effort. The raw numbers show as much, but the rebounding rates the team posted were astronomical. For the first time since the second week of conference play, the Golden Grizzlies posted back-to-back double-digit rebounding rate differentials. Additionally, the team posted two of its top three offensive rebounding performances of the conference season this weekend:

1. 54.5% offensive rebounding rate (at UMKC - 2/24/11)
2. 48.4% (at SDSU - 1/27/11)
3. 45.0% (at SUU - 2/26/11)
4. 40.0% (home UMKC - 12/4/10)
4. 40.0% (at ORU - 12/30/10)

So on average, Oakland rebounded approximately 49% of its own misses in the games against UMKC and SUU ... quite a feat! A week after losing the board battle to both NDSU (4.4% difference) and SDSU (2.7% difference), the Golden Grizzlies rebounded with truly dominant performances this week.

"Free Ilija" Watch
It's our last "Free Ilija" update, and it's highlighted by something the seven-footer rarely gets a chance to do: free throws! The Serbian Assassin attempted three free throws at SUU on Saturday night, making two of them. Before Ilija is ultimately "freed" next season, there is always a chance his number will be called in Sioux Falls this weekend. And as he showed us at Tennessee, he can make an impact even if he only plays for five minutes.

Non-Keith Benson Stud Of The Week: Will Hudson
A weekly shoutout to the best Golden Grizzly not named Keith Benson.
Will Hudson continues to play at a high level as his career winds down. He notched back-to-back double-doubles this weekend, marking the first time he's done that all season. He continues to work incredibly hard on the offensive glass, which in turn has afforded him a lot of open looks. Simply, the senior has come to play, and Oakland has been all the better for it. A final factor to note: in the last four games Hudson has made 21 of his 26 free throw attempts (81%). While he had a rough patch in the middle of the season at the stripe, his free throw shooting has been strong as of late and will surely be needed in Sioux Falls.

What's Next?
Oakland will head to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, this weekend to begin play in the conference tournament. The first game is a Saturday rematch with Southern Utah. It's win and advance or lose and go home from here on out. Best of luck to the Golden Grizzlies as they prepare for the tournament.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland at Southern Utah

Game 31: Oakland (21-9, 16-1) at SUU (11-17, 7-10)
Saturday, February 26, 2011 | 9:30pm EST
Watch: T-Bird Zone ($) | Radio: WDFN (1130 AM)

Oakland wraps up the regular season on Saturday night with a trip to Cedar City, Utah, to take on a surging Southern Utah squad. The Golden Grizzlies are coming off one of their best offensive performances of the year on Thursday night when they scored a whopping 1.402 points per possession. However, the team also allowed UMKC to go for 1.215 points per trip, a season high in conference play. OU's offense continues to be the definition of elite, but it must shore up the defense in order to ensure a win against Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds are 5-2 in the month of February, and the two losses (to UMKC and ORU) came by a combined five points. These fellas are really on a roll and have put their early season struggles behind them.

Lightning Striking At The Right Time
You may remember that Southern Utah started the season by dropping a home game to California Baptist out of the NAIA level of college hoops. The team really struggled throughout the season's first two months, and all the losing served as more reason to be glad that SUU would be leaving The Summit League after next year. Though the T-Birds did get a nice win over North Dakota State in the early portion of league play, they didn't start putting together solid offense with enough defense to win until the last month. For visual proof, see how the team's efficiency margin has trended this year:
The team's efficiency margin is in the negatives for the entirety of conference play, but as the trend line shows, it's been on the up-and-up for the better part of the second-half. Better yet, the team's efficiency margin for the month of February is +0.11. Oakland's over the same span is +0.09. Will Oakland's offensive firepower be enough to take down a vastly improved Thunderbirds team in Cedar City? That's why they play the games, I guess.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Oakland's Frontcourt vs. SUU's Frontcourt
Over the last two years or so SUU coach Roger Reid has recruited a lot of size. In fact, SUU has so much size in its frontcourt that it's fairly comparable to Oakland. The SUU frontline isn't quite as experienced as OU's, but it is surely big enough to compete with the opponents on Saturday night. Mott Hodgson's minutes still vary quite a bit, but the 6-foot-11 sophomore did have a breakout night as recently as a week ago at IUPUI. Matt Massey also has size and versatility, and freshman forward Kyle Davis has been on a tear as of late (13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in February league contests). Jackson Stevenett, who checks in at about the same size as OU's Drew Valentine, has also been on a bit of a hot streak lately (double figures in four straight games). Keith Benson, Will Hudson, and Valentine will have their hands full in this one, and depending on how the game is called, Ilija Milutinovic could also be called upon to pitch in.

SUU Player To Watch: Ryan Brimley
Ryan Brimley, or Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock, is the lone senior on this year's young Southern Utah team. As such, he'll be the only one celebrating Senior Night on Saturday evening. Like a lot of his teammates, Brimley's minutes have fluctuated quite a bit this season as Coach Reid seemingly worked to find the right rotations, and the senior has been rather ineffective during the last two weeks. However, it's Brimley's last game at Centrum so it's likely that the senior will at the very least have the opportunity to impact the game. He's capable of doing so, especially when given the green light to shoot threes, though it is worth noting SUU takes the least amount of three-pointers in the entire nation.

Oakland Player To Watch: Larry Wright
Larry Wright has been playing a lot of minutes in the last two weeks, a move that has chipped away at Drew Valentine's just a bit. Never fear, however, as Wright has been shooting fairly well from the field in that stretch and has been rebounding like it's mid-December. Wright has also stepped up his game on the defensive end of the court, which included a great performance guarding NDSU's Michael Tveidt a few weeks ago that Coach Kampe lauded after the game. If the altitude is not kind to Oakland's scoring threats from deep, the team could use a healthy dose of Wright attacking the basket.

The all-time series between these two schools is split evenly at 13-13, according to Long-time Oakland fans know well of the team's struggles in Cedar City. Last year's seniors didn't pull out a win there until their last season, which means this year's senior class will attempt to win its second game in a row to graduate with a 2-2 record at Centrum.

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.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland at UMKC

Game 30: Oakland (20-9, 15-1) at UMKC (16-11, 9-7)
Thursday, February 24, 2011 | 8:05pm EST
Watch: RooVision ($) | Radio: WDFN (1130 AM)

Oakland heads to Kansas City for a game against a UMKC team that is much-improved since the two teams met back in early December. The Golden Grizzlies won that game by more than 30 points, but that looks more like an outlier for a Kangaroos squad that is currently 9-7 in league play. One of the reasons the Roos have been successful this season is their improved play at home. Prior to the start of the year, they moved from the Municipal Auditorium into the on-campus Swinney Recreation Center, a venue they are currently 11-2 in this season. If Oakland can channel its early December game, then even a favorable home court won't help UMKC in this one. However, recent trends would indicate this one will be much closer than the previous meeting, especially considering the Roos still stand to improve their seeding by ending the season with a couple of wins.

The Rouse Of The Roos Revisited
When these teams met almost three months ago in Rochester, UMKC was riding high on a winning record achieved through the early part of non-conference play. The Oakland game, at least at the time, looked to put UMKC back in its place, a sign that the team had simply benefited from a very fluffy schedule (UMKC's non-conference strength of schedule ranks 320 out of 345). However, UMKC bounced back in January with several inspired performances, many coming in overtime, that have helped the team climb in the conference standings. Even if the Roos lose out to finish the year, they'll still finish with at least a .500 league record for the first time in five seasons. It's also the most successful season headed by Coach Matt Brown, whose tenure has thus far been marked by plenty of losing and player defections. It's an interesting turn for Brown, a coach who might have been another losing season away from losing his job. However, the job he's done in leading the Roos to a winning record this season should be commended. He's done it with an extremely short bench that's been decimated by injuries, particularly in the frontcourt. Senior leader Spencer Johnson has stepped in to become a rebounding machine for the Roos, and had the team had a few more bodies available, some of those overtime losses could have very well been victories. Whatever happens to UMKC from here, Brown's performance this season should not be soon forgotten. For the first time, he has the Roos winning more games than they lose, which is a big step for a program that has struggled mightily in recent years.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Reggie Hamilton vs. Reggie Chamberlain
When Reggie Hamilton transferred from UMKC, the team was able to pick up another Reggie, Reggie Chamberlain, via the transfer wire. After sitting out last season due to the transfer, Chamberlain has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat for the Roos. Earlier in the season the junior guard wasn't necessarily a featured option for the team, but he has come on as of late and is averaging 16 points per game in February. If he has a weakness worth exploiting, it's his three-point shooting as he's making just 33.3% of his attempts in league play. Reggie Hamilton, meanwhile, has been shooting lights out for Oakland as the team's second-leading scorer, and he's also been the best distributor in The Summit League in conference games. While Hamilton and his backcourt pals will have to contest with both Chamberlain and Bakari Lewis, the Reggie vs. Reggie match-up figures to be interesting to monitor.

UMKC Player To Watch: Jay Cousinard
Jay Cousinard has been a stud for UMKC this season. He gives the team an athletic presence on the wing, someone who can create his own shot off the dribble and draw contact in the paint. While he's not a prolific three-point threat, he's shooting a serviceable 41.1% from beyond the arc in conference play. Most of his damage comes closer to the basket where he is making 61.5% of his two-point attempts, and when he doesn't get a shot off, it's most likely because he's been fouled as he's third in the league in free-throws attempted in league play, just behind WIU's Matt Lander and OU's Keith Benson. The senior also chips in 6.1 rebounds per league contest. The dude should be a First Teamer when this year is over, and he's got just two more games to show why.

Oakland Player To Watch: Drew Valentine
With the seniors playing their last two games at home last weekend, Valentine didn't play his typical amount of minutes which limited his production opportunities just a bit. Against UMKC, however, Oakland will need Valentine's rebounding as the opponents feature a few great rebounders at the forward spot. If Valentine can chip in a few points via offensive boards while helping to limit UMKC's second chance opportunities, the Golden Grizzlies will be more effective at making it tough for guys like Spencer Johnson and Jay Cousinard to rebound. Valentine will likely also spend some time guarding Cousinard, UMKC's featured scorer, so the sophomore will be in a position to have an impact on the game one way or another.

Oakland has won nine straight games over UMKC dating back to the 2006-2007 season. These teams always tend to have high scoring games, though those have more often come at the O'rena than in Kansas City. As noted earlier, this game will be held in UMKC's on-campus gym instead of the historic Municipal Auditorium. The team moved its home games to Swinney Recreation Center this year.

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.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Week 9 In The Summit League: Tempo-Free Trends

After a big weekend for the Southern Utah Thunderbirds, the field of eight is now set for the conference tournament. However, the only seed that has been wrapped up is that of the number one, which goes to Oakland. Everything on down has yet to be settled. In fact, SUU could still jump up from the eighth to the seventh seed with a sweep at home this week. There is a lot on the line then in this final week of Summit League play. In an attempt to see which teams are progressing and which are regressing heading into this final week, I've charted the tempo-free offensive and defensive efficiency trends for all of the qualifiers below. Generally, the higher a team's offensive efficiency, as measured by points per possession, the more explosive the team. However, in order to win games, said teams must pair that offense with a low defensive efficiency mark, as measured by points allowed per possession. All data is for conference play only, and teams are presented in order of their efficiency margin (o-ppp minus d-ppp).

1. Oakland (+.19)
Oakland has been the most dominant team in the league all season long. While South Dakota State's offense has at times ranked ahead of Oakland's, the Jacks' defense has never been up to snuff with that of the Golden Grizzlies. As the blue trendline shows us, OU's tempo-free defensive efficiency has been trending toward 1.000 over the last few games, perhaps a sign that the team was never going to blow out teams all season long; the conference is just too strong this year. But its offense, despite a dip as of late, has remained in the upper-echelon of this measure. That's a deadly combination and the principle reason why OU remains the favorite. (For more on Oakland's efficiency trends, see the weekly recap post from yesterday).

2. South Dakota State (+.12)
South Dakota State has been the hottest offensive team in the league. The team's points per possession mark has barely fluctuated since the second or third week of conference play. That low offensive mark in SDSU's first game of the season against NDSU was the ultimate outlier. While recent history would suggest that the Bison will yet again beat the Jacks in next weekend's rematch, the red trendline shows that the Jacks have every reason to believe they can finally breakthrough against the foes from Fargo. On the defensive side, we can see that SDSU has had its ups and downs, literally, but that the team has gotten it together in recent weeks. The points allowed per possession is still rather high at 1.07, but at least they've been consistent. When they find that consistency, a little bit of defense is all the Jacks need to let their offense win games for them.

3. Oral Roberts (+.07)
No surprises here. Oral Roberts is peaking at the right time thanks to improved offense and defense. During the early part of the season, it seemed as if the team couldn't put together a string of solid games, yet here we are at the end of February talking about the Golden Eagles as a legitimate contender for the conference tournament. ORU still has two more games this weekend to increase that growing efficiency gap, and if the team is able to win both of those games, it will head to Sioux Falls on an eight game winning streak.

4. IUPUI (+.06)
Interestingly, IUPUI has never dropped into the negative area of efficiency margin, though the trendlines show us that the team was playing some of its best ball in the middle of the season. The blue line representing defensive efficiency has been creeping up over the past three weeks, but the team's offensive efficiency has more or less remained constant. When the Jaguars put it together, they're a dangerous team. But at this point their track record shows they're just as capable of stunning wins (Oakland) as head-scratching losses (SUU at home).

5. North Dakota State (+.025)
North Dakota State jumps ahead of IPFW by virtue of a one-thousandth point lead. The greatest asset for NDSU all season long has been its defense, which is currently allowing 1.03 points per possession (good for second in the league). However, the team's offense has been far from elite; consequently, the Bison men have dropped more games than they've won. And at present, the offense isn't improving much.

6. IPFW (+.024)
For much of the first half of conference play, IPFW was a legitimate contender thanks to an elite defense and a fairly stellar offense. As the team approached the halfway point, its defense quickly deteriorated. And soon after, its offense came back down to earth as well. Those early performances make you think that this could still be a scary team come March, but reason does not. The Dons haven't been in early season form for many weeks now, and their recent performances do not suggest it is getting any better. Granted, tempo-free statistics don't take into account the will to win of a great senior class, so the Dons could still make a run, but the data suggests it would be a big surprise at this point.

7. UMKC (-.030)
Somehow, despite winning more games than its lost, UMKC is still on the negative side of the efficiency margin. When looking at its chart, don't be fooled: the team's giving up more points than it scores on a possession basis. But as these trendlines thankfully show us, the Roos have had to do a lot of work to correct some early blowouts. In fact, up until this last weekend, Matt Brown's team had successfully inched closer and closer to the positives before falling back just a bit after a bad loss to IUPUI. However, one thing remains certain: put the Roos up against a team like NDSU or IPFW and they have a shot to move on in Sioux Falls despite the negative margin.

8. Southern Utah (-0.032)
Like the Kangaroos, the Thunderbirds sit on the negative side of this measure, but they've been getting better as of late. They've done it by shoring up the defense as the offense has been rather strong all year long (and consistent). But as the blue line shows us, SUU has been prone to major defensive lapses. Yet in recent weeks, that line has evened out a bit. This is good news for T-Bird fans as it means the team has improved its standing in the conference and secured a bid to the conference tournament. However, one has to wonder how much better the defense can get. At its best, SUU is still giving up 1.09 points per possession. That might be acceptable against some of the lower seeds, but it won't be enough to topple one of the higher seeds SUU is likely to face.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Gameplan's Weekly Recap: NDSU/SDSU

The Big Picture
Oakland sent its seniors off with two more wins at the O'rena this weekend, including a 105-96 victory over South Dakota State on Senior Night. Keith Benson, Will Hudson, and Larry Wright all put up big numbers in their last home game and capped the night off with a series of speeches to the crowd that showcased their character. It also gave the Oakland fans a chance to show their appreciation for the trio of seniors who have delivered back-to-back regular season championships. With the regular season championship clinched on Thursday night, the next time the Golden Grizzlies will have cause for celebration is if they win the tournament championship in Sioux Falls.

Efficiency Trends
In conferences like The Summit League, teams are not rewarded with at-large berths to the NCAA Tournament. Consequently, the only way for a program like Oakland to make the field of 68 is to claim the automatic bid that comes with winning a conference tournament championship. Generally, then, we can expect coaches to have their teams playing their best basketball heading into the beginning of March. In Oakland's case, this is something we've heard Coach Greg Kampe talk about time and again over the years. His focus on preparing his team for March has undoubtedly been the force behind Oakland's success in the conference tournament. But beyond general inferences, how can we quantify whether a team is truly peaking at the right time? To answer, let's turn to efficiency margin.

The concept of efficiency margin is fairly simple: points scored per possession less points allowed per possession. It's a tempo-free way to explain a basketball team's efficiency, and it's relevance is boosted when one uses only games played in conference since the playing field is deemed even. John Gasaway of looks at the efficiency margin of teams in high major and elite mid-major conferences each week, and following that model, I have been keeping track of this measure for The Summit League throughout the season. But instead of calculating the efficiency margin for one point in the conference season, I thought it would be interesting to see how it changes over the course of the year. With this idea in mind, I charted Oakland's efficiency margin in conference play for the 18 games played in the past three seasons. The 2010-11 EM is through the 16 games played thus far:
To aid in consuming the information presented here, first note that a positive efficiency margin is an indication of a good team (one which scores more points than it gives up). The higher the efficiency margin, the more dominant the team. Second, note that the horizontal axis represents the number of games played in the conference season.

We'll start with the 2008-09 season, one in which Oakland got off to a rough start before getting hot throughout the month of February. If any season represented the coaching mantra of "peaking at the right time," this was it. Oakland used its improved offensive and defensive efficiency to make a run to the conference championship game. Unfortunately, North Dakota State was a better team that year, and even the in-season adjustments Oakland made weren't enough to topple the Bison. In the 2009-10 season, the Golden Grizzlies were more or less dominant throughout, including an incredible stretch in the month of January where their efficiency margin was as high as +.24. While the team wasn't quite ascending during the last few weeks, it was at least very consistent hovering around the +.13 mark. Using that consistency streak, Oakland would go on to win the tournament championship.

Now we turn to this season. Janus-like, we can look at this in two different ways. First, the green line representing 2010-11 is clearly on the decline. Over the course of the last month, both Oakland's possession-based offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency have been falling; consequently, so has its efficiency margin. For the first time in league play, Oakland now rests under +.20 in this measure. Essentially, the Golden Grizzlies haven't been as dominant as they were in the early part of the season. Opposing teams are closing the gap.

However, that closing gap is still gaping! We can look at this decreasing efficiency as merely a team coming down from an incredible high. After all, there aren't too many teams who could keep up a +.30 efficiency margin throughout the course of a season. As a result, Oakland in 2010-11 has had more room to fall than previous versions, yet it still owns a decided advantage over the rest of its conference counterparts. Here, in it's entangled glory, is a visualization of efficiency margin trends in The Summit League.
I will have more on each team that should be easier to discern in tomorrow's conference wrap-up, but the basic idea should come through here: OU has been far and away the most efficient team all season long. So even though Oakland hasn't been quite as dominant lately, the team has still found a way to win. In blowouts, close games, and everything in between, these Golden Grizzlies have come out victorious. Such a pedigree will surely come in handy in Sioux Falls.

Hamilton, The Distributor
After his 11 assist performance on Saturday against South Dakota State, Reggie Hamilton is now averaging 6.4 assists per game in conference play. That mark sets him alone as the leading distributor in league play just ahead of SDSU's Nate Wolters (6.1). Since becoming Oakland's lead ball-handler around the time Larry Wright was first injured, Hamilton has proven to be quite effective at finding his teammates for open shots. The only knock against the junior in this role is that he has often coughed the ball up, but his assist-to-turnover ratio has improved in recent weeks. In last week's recap, I showed how Hamilton has become the team's leading player in terms of creating his own shot, but he has also been great at creating shots for others as well.

I first saw the concept of attributing a player's assists from's Luke Winn, who developed his own spin on's study on assists in the NBA. Since this model has been replicated a bit on other team-specific blogs, I thought I'd do a slightly different spin on the visualization, though the basic premise is the same. Here, we see the distribution of Reggie Hamilton's assists through 16 conference games.
It should come as no surprise to Oakland fans that a majority of Hamilton's assists are to Keith Benson, Drew Valentine, Will Hudson, and Travis Bader. After all, these are the players he is most often on the court with, and it's also been Oakland's starting line-up for the better part of league play. Benson is the primary benefactor of Hamilton's passes, which makes sense as the 6-foot-11 center is often the focal point of the offense. I was hoping some trend would become apparent with the rest of the guys, yet I found that Hamilton's assists were distributed fairly evenly. There is about a one percent difference in assisted baskets between Valentine, Hudson, and Bader. Hamilton doesn't really favor a particular guy, he just hits who is open or in position to score. As a sign of Oakland's good fortune this season, the team has several guys capable of knocking down shots from all over the court, and Hamilton has done a great job of finding his teammates in those spots.

"Free Ilija" Watch
Ilija's playing time continues to disappear as Oakland finds itself in increasingly tight games, but he was able to have an impact on the South Dakota State game by draining a three in the corner. With that make, he improves to 4-of-10 on three-point shooting in conference play.

Non-Keith Benson Stud Of The Week: Will Hudson
A weekly shoutout to the best Golden Grizzly not named Keith Benson.
All three seniors closed out the O'rena with a bang, but Will Hudson was the one doing the most banging around for the Golden Grizzlies this week. In his post-game interview on Saturday, there was plenty of evidence of this: a stitched-up eye, scratches on his biceps, a bruise. Hudson took his fair share of hits this weekend, yet he remained as tough as ever throughout. In two games, he gobbled up 18 rebounds (eight on the offensive glass) and blocked five shots in total. He also went 9-of-11 from the field and 14-of-18 from the charity stripe for 32 points. He was, simply, a beast.

What's Next?
Oakland will wrap up the regular season with a tough road trip to UMKC and SUU. The Kangaroos have been a tough out at their on-campus arena this season, and the Thunderbirds always seem to give Oakland close games in Cedar City. It will be interesting to see how the team approaches these games, considering the travel involved and the need to stay healthy and alert for Sioux Falls, and the fact that the regular season championship is already wrapped up.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland vs. SDSU

Game 29: Oakland (19-9, 14-1) vs SDSU (18-9, 10-6)
Saturday, February 19, 2011 | 6:00pm EST
Watch: OU All-Access ($) | Radio: WXOU (88.3 FM)

Saturday's tilt between Oakland and SDSU comes with equal parts sadness and excitement. For the former emotion, it'll be the last time we see Keith Benson, Will Hudson, and Larry Wright play a game at the O'rena. All three players have been major contributors for Oakland over the years, and while it will be hard to see them say goodbye to their home arena, it also serves as cause for celebrating their careers. And while the actual outcome of the game won't have a major impact on Oakland's season (the team has already clinched the league championship), the Golden Grizzlies will surely be motivated to send this trio of seniors out with a bang. The night's opponent, South Dakota State, is on a bit of a roll as of late. The Jacks have won four straight as it looks like they've finally found a way to put together enough defense to allow their explosive offense to win games. It's also been a season of firsts for the Jacks as they are coming off their first win at IPFW in their fourth year of league play. Now they'll look to get their first win at the O'rena while spoiling Oakland's Senior Night.

The Ultimate POT
Back in the early part of the conference season, I introduced a concept here, gleaned from Big Ten Wonk, about the perimeter-oriented team. Using IPFW as the subject, the numbers showed that the perimeter-oriented offense of the Dons in turn made them a league leader in turnover rate but squashed their chances of getting to the free throw line or accumulating many offensive rebounds. Well, now that we're almost to the end of conference play, I decided to gather the numbers again for league games only. The result of that process shows us that South Dakota State is now the ultimate perimeter-oriented team.
This first table shows us that 37.2% of SDSU's shots come from beyond the arc, which puts the team just behind UMKC in that department. Unlike UMKC, though, SDSU makes a high percentage of these shots. As a result, the team's perimeter orientation is well-employed. They take a lot of threes, and they make a lot of threes. However, as the next table shows, this is not without its statistical consequences.
First, perhaps the best consequence of such an orientation is a lessened turnover rate. The thinking on this matter is that the more shots a team takes from deep, the fewer chances it has to turn the ball over on a dribble-drive through mishandling or an opponent's block. SDSU's gaudy turnover rate is also helped by Nate Wolters, who rarely turns the ball over even as one of the team's most productive players off the dribble. Second, we see that SDSU is an average team when it comes to offensive rebounding percentage. Here, one might assume that with more players on the perimeter there are less bodies attacking the basket for the offensive board. The evidence suggests this is partly true, though it helps that the Jacks have a few guys who have proven effective on the offensive glass (Dale Moss, Jordan Dykstra). Finally, without as many guys driving to the basket, SDSU rarely gets to the free throw line. In fact, in conference games only the team has the lowest free throw rate in The Summit League. Again, Nate Wolters throws a wrench in that assessment as he is one of the best in the league at drawing contact. Clearly, SDSU has a perimeter-orientation and takes advantage of its benefits, and while the disadvantages are proven, the team has a game-changer in Wolters who has the ability to make moot several of these points.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Reggie Hamilton vs. Nate Wolters
When the All-League teams are announced a few weeks from today, the First Team should feature the two lead guards in Saturday's match-up. Nate Wolters is a sure-fire pick for the conference's top team, evidenced by the 18.8 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.5 rebounds he's averaging per game. Not only has Wolters been an impact player for SDSU, he's been their featured option in just his second year. The 6-foot-3 point guard had 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists on Thursday night to lead his team to its first win on the road against IPFW. Dude's a baller, simply put. On the other side of the ball stands Reggie Hamilton. The junior is having a stellar season for Oakland, averaging 16.8 points, 5.0 assists, and 2.6 boards a game. Those numbers are greater in conference play where Hamilton has been responsible for a number of late-game heroics to help will Oakland to victory. Even though these two guys won't always exclusively guard one another in this game, it will definitely be the most intriguing match-up as it features two potential First Team guards looking to keep their teams hot heading into the conference tournament.

SDSU Player To Watch: Clint Sargent
It seems that every Oakland opponent down the stretch here has featured a noteworthy senior playing his last game at the O'rena. SDSU's senior class might not be the winningest bunch compared to other senior classes around the league, but they sure have been influential in helping the program make the transition into a Division I contender. Clint Sargent has perhaps been the most productive of the Jacks' senior bunch over the course of the past four years. The Iowa native has primarily served as the team's principle threat from beyond the arc where he is shooting 41.4% on the season. Sargent seems to get hot in spurts, and if history is any indication, his 1-for-6 line on Thursday means that he's likely to bounce back with a much better performance against Oakland.

Oakland Player To Watch: Keith Benson
In the game against NDSU, Keith Benson did what seniors do. With the game close throughout the second half, Benson came up big to help lead his team to victory. After making just 2-of-7 field goals in the first, Benson went 6-of-11 in the second in addition to racking up four of his five blocks. And one of those blocks occurred with 47 seconds left on an NDSU shot attempt that could have tied the game. Keith Benson has rarely come up short in big moments for Oakland, and he showed on Thursday that such a trend is far being overturned. For now, Kito will have his last opportunity to come up big with timely dunks and game-altering blocks inside of the O'rena on Saturday night.

Oakland is 3-0 at home against SDSU since the Jacks joined The Summit League in the 2007-2008 season.

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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland vs. NDSU

Game 28: Oakland (18-9, 13-1) vs NDSU (13-12, 7-8)
Thursday, February 17, 2011 | 7:00pm EST
Watch: OU All-Access ($) | Radio: WXOU (88.3 FM)

The Golden Grizzlies welcome the Bison to the O'rena on Thursday night for what will be the second-to-last home game of the conference season. Oakland hasn't quite had its "A-game" in its last two contests, which is something it will need on this latest homestand. NDSU is a squad that gave Oakland a tight game last month in Fargo, and despite an up-and-down schedule, the Bison remain a tough opponent. These two squads always seem to have close games in the confines of the O'rena, though Oakland has always come out on top. That's been somewhat of a trend for the Golden Grizzlies at home for the past few seasons, and with this weekend being the last home games for a trio of dominant seniors, the home court advantage figures to be as strong as ever.

In The Middle
When looking at the North Dakota State statistical profile, one will notice that the team is average in just about every category. From field goal percentage and assisted basket percentage to turnover rate and fouls per game, the Bison consistently rank in the middle of the pack in The Summit League. It's boring, really. This is a squad that is fair at almost everything, but far from elite or crippling in any one thing. As a result, NDSU has no staggering weaknesses, nor could one consider it to have a major strength. And that's precisely why the team has hovered around .500 for the season. Now with all of that said, NDSU does excel in one very important area: rebounding, especially offensive rebounding. In conference games only, NDSU trails only Oakland in rebounding percentage. Here, compared to Oakland, from

1. Oakland: 52.8%
2. NDSU: 52.7%

For those doing the math, that's just a one-tenth difference. Essentially, this game will be a battle of two great rebounding teams. As noted, though, NDSU is also good on the offensive glass, rebounding 36.1% of its misses compared to Oakland's 33.8% mark. When the teams met in January, NDSU outperformed Oakland on the boards, resulting in Oakland's largest rebounding percentage differential at that point in league play. To overcome Oakland in Rochester, the Bison will need to do a lot more than rebound at an elite level, but that's at least a facet of the game to watch.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Will Hudson vs. Eric Carlson

It wasn't more than two weeks ago that NDSU junior forward Eric Carlson exploded with a 32 point, 12 rebound performance in a win against UMKC. It was Carlson's first huge game of the season, which comes as a bit of a surprise for a player who was tabbed in the preseason for Second Team All-League. While the Minnesota native has been solid in recent games, he hasn't exactly parlayed that UMKC night into more double-doubles. Will Hudson, a player who could very likely end up on that Second Team list, hasn't scored as much in the past two weeks as he did earlier in the season, but his rebounding - particularly on the offensive glass - has remained an integral component to Oakland's winning ways. With Senior Night approaching for Will The Thrill, one can only hope he gets a few more touches to end his career at the O'rena with a bang. For now, Carlson will be one player standing in the way of such a night.

NDSU Player To Watch: Marshall Bjorklund
Marshall Bjorklund's best night as a Bison in conference play came against Oakland in Fargo back on January 22. The 6-foot-8 freshman put up 21 points and 8 rebounds on a night where his teammates consistently fed him the ball in the post. Though he struggled early against Oakland's frontline, he was able to draw contact throughout the night that led to some Keith Benson foul trouble. Bjorklund hasn't quite received the same kind of touches in subsequent games, but after that game we know one thing about Bjorklund: he's not going to lack the confidence to go up against Oakland's bigs. For more, I posted an in-depth look of Bjorklund's previous performance on the blog yesterday, linked here.

Oakland Player To Watch: Larry Wright
Larry Wright was Oakland's hero in the last meeting between these two teams. He absolutely lit it up from the field in the second half and put an end to the Bison upset bid. Wright's three-point shooting has been inconsistent since then, and for whatever reason he's gone away from attacking the basket as much as he did during some of his better performances in December. Even now, we never know just how Wright will impact the game, but the simple fact is that he has the diversified skillset that enables him to be a weapon in a variety of ways. With just two more games left at the O'rena, it's Larry's turn to show everyone that smooth jumper and those twisting drives to the basket for the final go-around.

Oakland is 3-0 at home against NDSU since the Bison joined The Summit League in the 2007-2008 season. All three games have been relatively close affairs: the first two wins were by a combined five points, while last year's win was by seven points. History suggests a close game on Thursday evening.

Pre-Game Linkage
Check out the latest edition of the unofficial student section newslater, The Half-court Press, by clicking here. Additionally, you can listen to the podcast of the latest Greg Kampe Show, hosted by Matt Pocket and Bryan Everson of WXOU, by heading here. Finally, you can read a piece by Bison Illustrated on NDSU's final two weeks of the season here.

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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The One Game Rise Of NDSU's Marshall Bjorklund

In a conference as widespread as The Summit League, it's not exactly easy to gauge the various freshmen classes. For one, very few teams recruit in the same general area. And even if they do, these are mid-major teams that are more often than not looking for diamonds in the rough. With that said, both South Dakota State and North Dakota State made splashes with their 2010 recruiting classes that, at the very least, registered with hardcore Summit enthusiasts. SDSU's big "get" was the 6-foot-8 Jordan Dykstra, a state championship winner out of Iowa who had originally been an Iowa State commit. NDSU got a 6-foot-8 big of its own in Marshall Bjorkland, a post player who was one of five finalists for Mr. Basketball in Minnesota. Both players have had very fine first years thus far, and each has been a regular starter and contributor to his team. In fact, it wouldn't be blasphemy to say they will become dominant forwards in this league as they mature.

While it took Dykstra a bit longer to start producing for SDSU, Bjorklund burst on the scene in his very first game with a double-double at Oregon. It was a tremendous 18 point, 10 rebound performance that excited the NDSU fanbase, but after that seminal game, the big freshman failed to deliver as dominating a game in the non-conference season. In the early part of league play, Bjorklund was never a featured contributor but managed to chip in a few points and rebounds here and there. Then the Oakland game happened.

Against an Oakland frontline that features seniors Keith Benson and Will Hudson, Bjorklund exploded for 21 points and eight rebounds, five of which came on the offensive glass. He took a season high 14 shot attempts, all twos, a number that alone shows NDSU's game plan was to get the ball to Bjorklund in the paint. To box score scanners, that would be a fairly impressive feat. While there are some caveats to his performance, discussed shortly, it's impossible to take away from the night the Minnesota native had against Oakland. While OU won the game in the end, the Bjorklund tactic worked rather well for NDSU. And yet, in the team's next two games against SUU and UMKC, Bjorklund managed just four shot attempts. He got back on track against Centenary, but then he hasn't been in double digits in any of his last four outings. So what gives? Why was this freshman, as highly-touted as he may be, able to have a career night against Benson and Hudson? To see, let's look at his possessions.

This first clip features all of Bjorklund's touches in the first-half.

From the very start of the game, NDSU's game plan was to get Bjorklund touches in the paint. Oakland guarded the freshman straight up with Keith Benson, and on his first three possessions, this worked wonderfully for the Golden Grizzlies. Bjorklund had decent position but was never able to capitalize thanks to Benson's long arms. Finally, though, on his fourth touch (0:36) he gets Benson's to jump preemptively and draws the foul. Even if Bjorklund was bothered by Benson, the strategy worked in my mind by getting Benson an early foul. Still, Benson continues to hold his ground as the video goes on and even gets the best of Bjorklund at the 0:53 point when the referees whistle for a jump ball. That was a particularly good play for Oakland as Bjorklund was clearly doing his best to draw contact. In two of his next possessions, the freshman plays strong but fails to finish at the rim. Then, at the 1:28 mark, he draws a second foul on Benson. So even though Bjorklund went just 2-of-6 on his shot attempts in this half, he held his own and got the best possible outcome by drawing two fouls on Benson.

Now we turn to the second half where Bjorklund exploded for 15 points.

Within two minutes into the second half, Keith Benson is called for his third foul after Michael Tveidt drew a charge. At this point, Kito remains in the game. On the plus side, he was still able to make an impact on the offensive end, and his help-defense continued to be solid. However, he was not as effective in one-on-ones against Bjorklund, who took advantage of Benson's foul trouble. After a failed lay-up, Bjorklund goes strong toward the bucket at the 0:18 mark, which ignites a streak of inside buckets, largely on the block against Benson. One could infer that his confidence level grew because he started to put the ball in the basket, and as a result he finished the game with a number of strong moves to score. It was a smart move on NDSU's part as Benson wasn't attacking Bjorklund at full-steam so as to avoid picking up his fifth foul. And even when Will Hudson switched over to guard Bjorklund (1:05), the freshman still got the best of Oakland.

While his post moves are raw - at times, all that herky-jerky movement makes it look like he's just searching for a bailout - Bjorklund demonstrated a lot of potential in this match-up. I was most impressed with his motor and the fact that he had the mettle to mix it up in the paint against OU's formidable frontline. Occasional Grizzlies Gameplan contributor Ryan Pravato, who also writes for the NBA site Stacheketball and has a far better scouting eye than me, had favorable thoughts on Marshall's footwork but offers some other thoughts on his game as well:
He uses his pivot foot excellently in a couple of occasions and has been taught well in post play. I like how when he first catches the ball he pass fakes right away; he's always trying to keep the defense on their toes in a sense. In the second half, we have to remember that Benson is playing hesitantly because of foul trouble and is less willing to bite on the pump fakes. Marshall several times does a great job of initiating contact with his defender. It makes it tough for the defender because it throws them off balance, and he is acting like his own personal shield in that way too.
However, he gets into trouble by playing smaller than his 6-foot-8 frame suggests. After a rebound he sometimes brings the ball down around his midsection instead of keeping it high and maybe having a window of opportunity to put it back up before the defender can react. And he bends down a little excessively while he's making his moves. That's good, on the one hand, because it keeps the ball safer and he can use his strength, yet, it can put him in a bubble where he's playing like he's a 6-foot-3 guy in the post. Overall, his quick gyrations in the paint are part inexperience and part his knowledge of good footwork, and his patience will come along eventually for him. He knows how to play the post for the most part and has a strong upside in The Summit League.
On an individual level, Bjorklund showed that he had the hustle and physical wherewithal to play tough against Oakland's experienced frontline. He struggled early, but he ultimately helped himself by playing to draw contact on the block. Consequently, Keith Benson got into some foul trouble, and Bjorklund did his best to take advantage of that on the offensive end of the floor where he ended up having a career night. For his part, Benson still had a couple of clutch plays toward the end of the game that allowed Oakland to retain the lead (and he was fouled by Bjorklund on both big plays), which is precisely why a foul-hindered Benson is better than no Benson. On Thursday night, I will be watching closely to see what kind of game plan NDSU uses this time around. Bjorklund has all but disappeared from the Bison offensive strategy in recent weeks despite the fact that he has shown he can do some work in the post.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Week 8 In The Summit League: Taking Stock

While the college hoops scene at large spends its time debating bubble teams, here in The Summit League there is a very fascinating race going on for conference tournament positioning. Oakland is the clear favorite for the top spot in the tournament, but the battle for the two through six seeds still rages on. The league's hottest team is Oral Roberts, winner of four straight, and South Dakota State is heating up thanks to improved defensive effort. With just two more weeks remaining in league play, all of these teams will be looking to improve their standing for Sioux Falls. Let's take a look at the road ahead for each of these teams.

Oakland (Current Seed: 1)
Remaining Schedule: NDSU, SDSU, @UMKC, @ SUU
- Oakland fans, don't be fooled. This is as tough of a stretch of games as the team could have had to end this season. Of all the travel pairings in the league, I believe the NDSU/SDSU duo is the toughest. Both teams feature a few senior leaders who are going to be laying it all on the floor in these final games, and they also have a couple of young guys who are capable of changing a game. The Golden Grizzlies have the advantage in these games because they will be the last held at the O'rena this season, but it's still a tough way to close the building for the year. Following that, a tough road trip looms. UMKC's defense needs some shoring up, but my guess is the Roos will not go quietly into the night when they host Oakland in two weeks. They haven't forgotten what Oakland did to them in December, and they've been very good at Swinney Rec this season. Finally, the last game of the season is out at Southern Utah. That's a place Oakland is 4-8 at since the 1998-99 season. Coach Kampe has always said he likes his teams to be rolling in late February. This is where we find out if this year's squad exhibits that trait.

IUPUI (Current Seed: 2)
Remaining Schedule: SUU, UMKC, @ORU, @Centenary
IUPUI has a very favorable schedule for the finals two weeks. The team gets Southern Utah and UMKC at home, and while neither team is a cakewalk, these are teams that IUPUI has typically taken care of business against this season. The ORU game could end up being a "win and get the second seed" kind of game. Mark that one on your calendars.

ORU (Current Seed: 3)
Remaining Schedule: @Centenary, IUPUI, WIU
While IUPUI's upcoming schedule is favorable, the remaining games for Oral Roberts set the team up nicely to be rolling into Sioux Falls on a big winning streak. The Golden Eagles have won four straight games (a home sweep of NDSU/SDSU and road wins at UMKC and SUU), and there is no doubt they could win these last three games. With all due respect to Centenary and Western Illinois, the only game that will likely be a test for ORU is the home date with IUPUI.

IPFW (Current Seed: 4)
Remaining Schedule: SDSU, NDSU, @SUU, @UMKC
Who knows what IPFW team we will see during this stretch run. They beat all of these teams except for SDSU during the first run around, so the precedent is there to suggest the Dons could very well finish out the year by winning all of these games. Or they could split them. As has been the case with this team for much of the last month, you just never know.

SDSU (Current Seed: 5)
Remaining Schedule: @IPFW, @Oakland, @NDSU
In a interesting turn of events, one of the league's hottest teams ends the year with the toughest slate of games. SDSU has had an explosive offense all season long, but the team has recently shored up its defensive efforts in wins over IUPUI and Western Illinois. However, this stretch is just tough. Though the Jacks dismantled the Dons in Brookings, a better prepared IPFW team is typically strong at home. They'll get Oakland on a Saturday night that doubles as senior night for Keith Benson, Will Hudson, and Larry Wright. And then they have to go to Fargo to face an NDSU team they haven't beat since 2006. Brutal.

UMKC (Current Seed: 6)
Remaining Schedule: @WIU, @IUPUI, Oakland, IPFW
Coach Matt Brown has done a great job with this year's UMKC team. He's gotten a lot of production out of a very slim roster that has been cut short due to injuries. When his guys play defense like they did, say, at South Dakota State (0.896 points per trip) as opposed to how they did over the weekend against Oral Roberts (1.44 points per trip), then they are a group that could battle to finish this year with a winning record and a solid seed in Sioux Falls.

NDSU (Current Seed: 7)
Remaining Schedule: @Oakland, @IPFW, SDSU
The Bison are just a game under .500 in conference play but face a challenging path toward finishing above that mark. The NDSU ballers can help themselves by splitting their upcoming road swing and taking care of business against SDSU, but at this point they'll also need some help from other teams in order to get out of playing the second seed at the tournament.

Southern Utah (Current Seed: 8)
Remaining Schedule: @IUPUI, @WIU, IPFW, Oakland
SUU very nearly beat ORU on Saturday, but the standings don't reflect "almost" getting a win. As such, the fate of the Thunderbirds will likely be determined on February 19th at Western Illinois. If they are able to get a win at Western Hall, then they'll surely be in the tournament as the eighth seed. That could set up an interesting scenario where, if everything holds, SUU and Oakland would play in Cedar City on February 26th before meeting again in Sioux Falls a week later on March 5th.

Western Illinois (Current Seed: N/A)
Remaining Schedule: UMKC, SUU, @Centenary, @ORU
The Leathernecks keep on fighting, but Jim Molinari just sounded dejected after losing at South Dakota State on Saturday. It's been a very rough season for Western Illinois due to the loss of every major contributor to injury. Molinari's squad sits firmly outside of the eight-team field for the conference tournament, but they do get to play one game in March: independent Savannah State returns a game to Macomb on March 1.

Centenary (Current Seed: N/A)
Remaining Schedule: ORU, WIU, IUPUI
If Centenary gets a win before this season is over, at least it will come within the confines of the Gold Dome. That's a great advantage for the Gentlemen, but the schedule is unforgiving. ORU and IUPUI both pay visits, leaving WIU as the only game that most clear-headed observers would give them a chance to win. Computers like that game, too: gives the Gents a 32% chance of victory that fateful Thursday evening.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Gameplan's Weekly Recap: IPFW (2)

The Big Picture
A week after they were on the wrong side of the fouling distribution, the Golden Grizzlies used a substantial free throw advantage against IPFW to help them seal the victory. With the win, Oakland sweeps the season series with the Mastodons but should remain cautious of this senior-led team that could get hot in Sioux Falls. For now, though, Oakland continues to distance itself from the rest of the conference pack.

The Playmaker Quandary, Solved
Prior to the beginning of the season, I conducted an analysis of Oakland's shot creation during the 2009-10 season. In order to determine which Oakland players were the best at finding their own shot, I used play-by-play data from the box scores to split shots into those made as the result of an assist and those that were not. The resulting rate, Assisted Field Goal Percentage, then identifies which players are the best and worst at making their own play. For that season, then-seniors Johnathon Jones and Derick Nelson were by far the best playmakers, particularly on inside baskets. Jones, in particular, was otherworldly: only 12% of his inside buckets were assisted, meaning that he was able to cut to the basket for Oakland better than any other guard on the team. With that said, I wondered if any current Golden Grizzlies would be able to fill this very large void in 2010-11.

Well, with four regular season games remaining, Reggie Hamilton has proven to be an even more impressive playmaker than Johnathon Jones. I have been keeping track of these statistics throughout the season, and after another great performance against IPFW on Saturday, Hamilton surpassed Jones' raw figures (which include the three tournament and NCAA tournament games). Take a look (click to enlarge):
The chart shows us that of Hamilton's inside baskets, only 8% have come as the result of an assist. In raw figures, there is only a two basket difference between Jones and Hamilton in this regard; however, Hamilton is bound to continue to add to the "No Assist" side in these last few weeks. As for jump shots, the two players are just about even. When I tallied up the totals last season, I did not split jump shots between twos and threes, but I alleviated that this year. It's not shown in the chart, but only 11 of Hamilton's jump shots have been two-pointers outside of the paint. I can't say for certain what the total for Jones would have been, but based on memory, I'd say that about half of his jump shots were two-pointers. This is the main difference between Hamilton and Jones as scorers. Jones was able to pop back on the fastbreak for a 12-foot jumper, whereas Hamilton almost always attacks the basket. I do not have the statistics to back up this next assumption, but I would guess this is the reason why Hamilton gets called for charges more often than Jones did last year.

As for Hamilton, his ability to see plays unfold has continued to make him a scoring threat off the dribble-drive. Though he's been prolific in this regard, Hamilton has consistently deferred any praise to his teammates for giving him open lanes to score. While his humility is respected, I would say that he is just as often as responsible as his teammates' off-the-ball movements. But to begin with, we'll look at a play where Hamilton scored in a half-court set where his teammates help to give him an open lane.
In frame 1, Hamilton is setting the offense at the top of the key after a few passes on the perimeter failed to ignite a scoring opportunity. All of the players are shifting to the left, which is how Ledrick Eackles ends up on the opposite side of the picture in frame 2. Here, Hamilton is guarded by Ben Botts in isolation, and as he makes a move toward the basket in frame 3, we can see that the lane is completely open thanks to the shifting from the previous frames. As Hamilton drives off the dribble, the defense begins to collapse, and Drew Valentine's defender leaves him completely open in frame 4. As a result, Hamilton has the option of dishing off to Valentine for the open look on the perimeter, but he goes ahead with a spinning jumper in the lane instead. It wasn't the prettiest of his inside looks, but Hamilton rarely fails to finish in such a position.

Just as often, Hamilton gets inside buckets through team defense that leads to fastbreak opportunities. The junior guard is great in the open court and has the ball-handling skills and vision to find open lanes in such opportunities. Let's take a look at one of these plays from the IPFW game:
In the left frame, Hamilton is leading a fastbreak opportunity that arises from an IPFW turnover around the half-court line. In such a situation, Hamilton has typically done one of two things: 1) go hard at the basket, or 2) dish off to a teammate for a quick shot attempt. In other words, rarely does this team pass up an opportunity for a fastbreak bucket. In this particular play, Hamilton recognizes the open lane and uses his superb knifing ability to cut into the lane. In the right frame, he still has the option to pass off to Benson for a quick dunk, but Hamilton, confident as ever, goes up strong for the easy lay-up.

At this point in the season, Hamilton has surpassed Jones in terms of his raw scoring ability. He is as dangerous an option in isolated situations as he is on the fastbreak. One could argue that he's a more dangerous three-point shooter than Jones, too. And while he may turn the ball over more than Jones did, it's worth noting that in conference play no one is averaging more assists per game than Hamilton this season. He may not be the prototypical point guard, but Reggie Hamilton has been about as fine a playmaker - for himself and for others - as Oakland fans could have hoped for.

Shortly after the IPFW game, I asked one of my friends if Hamilton was working his way into Oakland basketball lore. After all, the block he had on a Ben Botts three-point attempt in the waning seconds was just another addition to a long list of clutch plays he's made this season. My friend's answer was that he's got a ways to go to reach the point of being a legend simply due to his short tenure. While I agree with that assessment, Hamilton's impact this season has been monumental, and with a few more quality games in March, no one will soon forget his contributions.

A Defining Identity
Oakland's student newspaper, The Oakland Post, had a great feature in this week's edition about "the many faces of the Oakland brand." The leading graphic, seen in the article here, depicts most of the different logos the university has used in recent years for both institutional and athletic purposes. In the article, the authors note that Oakland is still a young university without a concrete brand, and as a result, there exists an opportunity for the school to create such a defining identity. These thoughts are echoed in the paper's editorial, too. As a person with an interest in branding and design, I was very excited to see this article and to read that the university is looking to stick with one logo in the future. For too long there have been one too many logos out there, and nowhere has this been as prominent than with Athletics. For example, when my friend and I went to the Oakland-Purdue game, he pointed out that on one arena screen there was the lone "Grizzly face" logo and on another the interlocking OU letters. Purdue, meanwhile, stuck with its identifiable "P" logo, everywhere.

One logo that is not brought up in the article is the "block O" logo. This is the first year I have personally noticed it on more than just apparel; it's on promotional materials, the game balls, and even the cheer team outfits. I like the "block O" as I believe, in some ways, it represents a movement toward OU athletics being known simply as "Oakland" instead of Oakland University or the dreaded Oakland (Mich.). However, my only beef is in its name. While I have no idea what it is officially known as, a cursory check reveals that there is at least evidence it has been referred to as the "block O." The reason for my beef? Do a quick Google search for "Block O."


There is no way Oakland will be trumping Ohio State in the battle for the "block O" language. The scarlet and gray have simply had it for too long. Although the shape between the two logos is similar, I believe they are distinct enough even in a grayscale, side-by-side depiction:
Or maybe I've just seen it too often to easily tell the difference. Either way, the block O is cool, but the name, or at least the one I'm inferring here, has a rather formidable foe to go up against. There are people with degrees in this kind of stuff who are paid a lot of money to brand products and institutions, so I won't go as far as to offer an uneducated opinion on where the university should go from here. I will say that the University of Oregon managed to construct a logo that is utilized for both academic and athletic purposes, and I'd argue it is one of the most recognized symbols in higher education. In sum, I'm just happy to hear that OU is looking to create an undisputed Oakland brand, and I hope that the result of the process is an identity that serves the school and its community well.

"Free Ilija" Watch
Ilija recorded his first "trillion" of any sort this season in the game against IPFW. He played two minutes total but did not register a single statistic for the game (therefore, when you scan the boxscore, you will see a "2" followed by several zeros). So technically, Ilija achieved a "two-trillion" in the Saturday matinée. If that seems like a knock, it most certainly is not. To put his two-trillion performance in perspective, consider the fact that he logged two minutes against Purdue but drew two fouls, or that he had two turnovers in two minutes of playing time against Austin Peay. Ilija is officially a member of the Trillion Man March.

Non-Keith Benson Stud Of The Week: Drew Valentine
A weekly shoutout to the best Golden Grizzly not named Keith Benson.
The unheralded player in the IPFW games was Drew Valentine. Valentine drew a tough defensive assignment in Frank Gaines that may not have gone as well as hoped, but then again, Valentine did some damage on the offensive end as well. He hasn't been as involved in the offense as of late, but against IPFW he was very active and almost completely blew off three-point shooting in favor of putting the ball on the floor for high-percentage shots. As a result, he went 7-of-11 from the field for 14 points while pulling down seven rebounds and assisting three of his teammates' baskets. Kudos, Drew!

What's Next?
The Golden Grizzlies get to stay in Rochester this week but welcome two tough opponents in North Dakota State and South Dakota State. I consider these two teams to be the toughest travel partners in the league even when they are the visiting team. On Thursday, OU will meet an NDSU team that battled in their meeting at the Bison Sports Arena but ultimately came short thanks to some timely shooting by Larry Wright. Saturday, of course, is Senior Night for Oakland's trio of senior ballers. It's the last time to see Kito, Will, and Larry at the O'rena, and it comes against a team that has a more explosive offense than Oakland. In other words, get your tickets (or purchase your All-Access account) because these are not games you will want to miss!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland vs. IPFW

Game 26: Oakland (17-9, 12-1) vs IPFW (16-8, 9-4)
Saturday, February 12, 2011 | 12:00pm EST
Watch: Fox Sports Detroit | Radio: WXOU (88.3 FM)

Oakland returns to action this weekend with a matinée home game against IPFW. It will be interesting to see how the Golden Grizzlies respond as this will be their first league contest played after dropping a game. The team has had a week off to rest and get prepared for the Mastodons. When the two teams met last time in Fort Wayne, it was a battle for first place. Since that meeting, however, IPFW has regressed just a bit yet remains a dangerous team. The Dons used the break in the schedule for a tune-up earlier this week against independent Chicago State. They won that game by a score of 95-50 on incredibly hot shooting. If they shoot like that at the O'rena, it will be a long night for the Grizzlies. However, Oakland has had a balanced attack all season long and remains the preeminent home team in The Summit League.

Taking Advantage Of Charity
If you juxtapose the team stats of Oakland and IPFW in league games, there is no comparison. Oakland wins them all. That's not necessarily a condemnation of the Dons; after all, Oakland similarly overshadows all conference foes in every important statistical category, standard or tempo-free. However, there are two areas where the Golden Grizzlies have lagged behind their conference counterparts: turnover rate and free-throw shooting. IPFW has taken care of the ball well for most of the year, which may be due in part to the fact the team is rather perimeter-oriented. As a result of their orientation, they are in the bottom-half of the league in terms of free throw rate, but the bottom line is when they do get to the line, they make their shots. Overall, IPFW's 78.5% team free throw percentage is fourth in the nation, and its 79.0% mark in conference games tops The Summit League. Oakland? Well, its 69.0% figure is good for eighth in the league. So how does a team get to such a gaudy percentage at the line? See the table:
This table charts the free throw shooting percentage and free throw rate for the team's five most productive players in conference games only. Although he fills a sixth man role, Jeremy Mixon was included since he plays major minutes and has a larger role in the offense than John Peckinpaugh (who has been nonexistent on that end of the court in league play). When I was compiling this information, I almost couldn't believe my eyes. All five of the team's top players shoot over 80.0% from the charity stripe! There might not be another team in the nation with a starting line-up as proficient at free throw shooting. Moreover, all of these players are fairly adept at getting to the line, as the free throw rate shows us. Frank Gaines, just a sophomore, is a beast when it comes to drawing fouls, particularly when one realizes he's just a 6-foot-5 guard. And Trey McCorkle, despite some inconsistency this season, has still made the most of his time on the floor by drawing fouls at a respectable rate.

For the sake of comparison, let's now look at Oakland's distribution. The table features Oakland's top six players in terms of minutes and production. Figures are for conference games only.
The table shows us that Oakland is far from balanced when it comes to free throw percentage. On the one hand is a guy like Reggie Hamilton, who makes an impeccable 93.3% of his free throws, and on the other is Drew Valentine, who struggles to make half his attempts. The key stat for Oakland, however, is the free throw rate. Valentine, interestingly enough, makes very few trips to the line so he's not necessarily hurting (or helping) Oakland in this regard. Hamilton goes there quite often, as does Keith Benson, and both of those guys will knock down their free throws more often than not. However, there is definitely a disconnect between the better free throw shooters and the guys who actually spend more time at the line. This is evident when noting how strong free throwers like Travis Bader and Larry Wright hardly go to the line while Will Hudson leads the team in free throw rate but has oddly struggled to take advantage of such charity.

The lesson here is that IPFW has been an elite free throw shooting team this season, which is one of the only areas where Oakland has been somewhat deficient in. If this game comes down to free throws, the season statistics show us that IPFW would own a distinct advantage. That is unless Reggie Hamilton is the one at the line for Oakland.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Drew Valentine vs. Frank Gaines
The sophomore class in The Summit League is led by SDSU's Nate Wolters, but the two players who have developed the most in their second year are Frank Gaines and Drew Valentine. Both players fulfill full-time roles with their respective teams, but they impact the game in different ways. Gaines has become a featured scorer for the Mastodons, averaging 13.9 points per game in league play on 49.6% shooting. He does most of his damage off the dribble and gets to the free throw line as well as anyone on his team. Additionally, he has been a beast on the boards and actually had a double-double against Oakland back in January. Valentine has also developed into a great rebounder, chipping in 7.5 boards per league game. However, his biggest impact in conference play has been on the defensive end where he is averaging 1.8 steals per game while guarding the league's best players. He's also an underrated passer (2.5 assists/game), and he's shooting at an impressive rate from the field (68.0% on twos, 52.6% on threes). Valentine currently has a leg up on Gaines because of his defensive ability. But Gaines is turning into a special player who has shown he can score at will, which is a trait Drew has yet to fully develop (partly because it's not necessary of him at this point). Either way, this is an exciting match-up of two guys who could be battling for All-League honors in future years.

IPFW Player To Watch: Ben Botts
Jeremy Mixon has been hot as of late for the Mastodons off the bench, but the guy who makes this team tick is Ben Botts. Now a senior, the six-foot guard is having a campaign to remember. He's upped his averages in all of the major statistical categories, and he's on pace to drain more three-pointers than he has in any other season. That says a lot for a guy who has always been rather prolific from beyond the arc. In league play, he's currently making 55.6% of his threes, which is a tally that ranks him ahead of the next best high-volume shooter, Oakland's Travis Bader (51.9%). Botts also rarely commits turnovers (and neither does his backcourt mate Zach Plackemeier) so it's tough to break him, particularly when he's playing out his last few games as a Don.

Oakland Player To Watch: Ryan Bass
It's impossible to predict how Coach Kampe will employ Ryan Bass from game to game, but if the true freshman doesn't get much time against IPFW, it won't be because of his lack of effort. The Dayton native had his best string of games as a Golden Grizzly on last week's roadtrip where he scored 10 points and racked up nine assists in 34 total minutes. It's an odd time of the season for him to be in consideration for more playing time, but he seems to have earned it with some of his recent play, particularly on the defensive end where he has been able to hound opposing guards in short bursts. His speed and quickness are always assets, but it's his developing court vision that has been most exciting to watch as of late.

In Summit League games, Oakland owns a 2-1 record over IPFW at the O'rena. Last year's contest was a fairly even one that OU won 88-85, but not before Trey McCorkle went off for 25 points and six rebounds against Keith Benson (who also had a monster line: 32 points, 10 boards, 4 blocks). Interestingly, the free throw disparity mentioned above held true in this game: IPFW went 16-of-20 (80%) from the stripe while Oakland made a paltry 26-of-42 (62%).

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.