Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The 23 Flavors: Rooting For Oakland

Every year in the days between Selection Sunday and the first tip on Thursday afternoon, millions of casual sports fans try as they might to soak up a season's worth of college basketball information to aid in their bracket selections. Inevitably, many of these folks will attempt to be smarter than their friends by going out on a limb with an upset pick. For a lot of people, that pick will be the 13-seed Oakland University over the 4-seed University of Texas. Whether they come up with it on their own based on a cooler mascot or because a national media expert told them to do so, it's already looking like a fairly popular upset pick.
The mere fact that people will be asking questions about Oakland and its basketball team because it is on the big bracket is one of the chief benefits of making the NCAA Tournament field. The attention is definitely warranted, but there are more reasons to be interested in a team like Oakland than its seed line. I've come up with 23 of those reasons below, a number which was picked as a nod to Coach Greg Kampe's favorite soda, Diet Dr. Pepper. You see, OU's coach is a very humorous guy, and that personality trait is on display for fans in his weekly Grizz Talk chats with Paul Kampe of The Oakland Press, his weekly radio show on WXOU, and his pre-game video updates callled "Coach's Corner" on the team's official website. Throughout the season, a meme of sorts has developed and permeated every single one of those updates about Coach Kampe's love of all things Diet Dr. Pepper. The venerable beverage is known for its unique mix of 23 flavors. And just like the DDP, Oakland is a unique program with 23 flavors of its own that make it worthy of the casual basketball fan's attention beyond the confines of your bracket. Presented in no certain order, the 23 flavors for why you should root for Oakland:

#23. Coach Kampe has a running inside joke about a soda!
Some coaches are Twitter fiends, others blog about their coaching experiences, and many more make the rounds with national television shows on the regular. But what coach in the entire nation has a running inside joke about a pop he really enjoys drinking? The Dr. Pepper meme is symbolic of a much broader characteristic of Coach Kampe: he's very media friendly. As an Oakland fan, you will never get bored of listening to this man talk, and he always keeps it real.

#22. Great media support
Those various updates from Coach Kampe wouldn't be possible without a lot of great media support. The Oakland Press covers the entirety of Oakland County, but its year-long coverage of OU basketball is unmatched. Paul Kampe currently serves as the OU beat writer for the paper, and his weekly Grizz Talk show (featuring interviews with Coach Kampe and various players) is a fan favorite. Moreover, his Twitter feed and Grizz Den outlet are great places to go for the latest Oakland news and information. The team also benefits from having some of the best student media coverage out there. Dan Fenner has served as the student newspaper's beat writer for OU hoops all season, and Matt Pocket and Bryan Everson from WXOU student radio have been broadcasting games and hosting shows with Coach Kampe on a weekly basis. Great efforts, all-around.

#21. Top-notch broadcasting and communications
All of Oakland's road games are broadcasted live on WDFN 1130AM with play-by-play from Mario Impemba, who Detroiters likely know better as the voice of the Detroit Tigers. But during the winter months, Impemba spends his time on the road with the Golden Grizzlies. He's joined by Neal Ruhl who provides color commentary and plenty of catchphrases. Ruhl also delivers most of the "Coach's Corner" updates from far-away arenas, offering fans a glimpse into OU's game preparation. The Athletics department also does a fine job of covering the games; for example, this season the game recaps on the official website featured not only an original story and box score, but also photos, video highlights, and post-game press conference video. There's no way you'll be out-of-the-loop as an Oakland fan thanks to these efforts.

#20. A growing program with an appreciation for its roots
While all of you bracket filler-outers watched the Selection Show on CBS, a couple thousand or so Oakland fans mingled in the team's on-campus arena awaiting the seed announcement. There were students, administrators, faculty, and staff in the house as well as numerous alumni, families, and community members enjoying one another's company, free food, and many giveaways. The coaches and team made the rounds to interact with all of the fans. The presentation of the event was at the level of a big-time program, yet the atmosphere of it was one of familiarity. Oakland is a growing program, but it has to this point maintained an appreciation for its roots. It's a great thing with which to be associated.

#19. A glorious three-point shooter
Though players come and go, there is no doubt this year's team features a memorable cast of characters. Redshirt freshman Travis Bader is tops in the nation in three-pointers made among all Division I freshmen. He has made 92 in 34 games, which stands as the most since Seth Curry had 102 in 2008-09 in 35 games played to lead the nation. And Bader's not just jacking up a ton of shots, either. Among those freshman with a minimum of 100 attempts, Bader trails only Kentucky's Doron Lamb in three-point percentage. The young guard's stroke is smooth, giving Oakland the kind of threat on the perimeter that strong tournament teams typically employ. He's also another in a long line of superb three-point shooters Oakland has recruited in recent years, a diamond in the rough kind of guy that the coaching staff has been known to find.

#18. A power-six transfer with a smooth jumper
Though he'll be gone after this season, senior guard Larry Wright puts up 20 points or more every five to six games. In between, he'll still have a presence, but when he's on, he's on. And it just so happens that he is due for one of those stunning performances as his last 20 point effort came six games ago. On a broader level, Wright also represents the kind of power-six transfer player Oakland picks up every now and then. You won't find any McDonald's All-Americans at Oakland, but that doesn't mean there aren't big-time talents on the team in a given year.

#17. A Serbian assassin
Ilija Milutinovic, Oakland's 7-footer from Serbia, hasn't had a whole lot of playing time during his college career, but his best game came in the team's biggest win. Though he only scored four points when Oakland upset Tennessee, they were four very key points that came at a time when Keith Benson was off the court taking care of an injury. Ilija stepped in and filled the void for a brief time. When he hit a fall-back jumper as the shot clock drained out, the ESPNU broadcaster anointed him as "The Serbian Assassin," perhaps one of the best nicknames you will ever hear.

#16. Four-year seniors
There aren't many four-year seniors on elite teams these days, let alone two who do their work on the block. Oakland has such a tandem in seniors Keith Benson and Will Hudson. Combined, the forwards shoot 59% from the field and average 17.2 rebounds per game. They provide the Golden Grizzlies with a dual-threat that is as skilled, strong, and experienced as any other low post duo in the country. During the last few seasons, OU has had a commendable group of seniors each year who graduate while making an impact on the court. These are guys you can support.

#15. Professional talent
Just because no one on the Oakland roster is leaving for the NBA after a year doesn't mean the program hasn't produced professional talent. Rawle Marshall spent some time in the Association in the middle of the aughts, and Keith Benson could very well be the first Golden Grizzly to hear his name called by David Stern this June. Other players have gone on to play professionally overseas. In fact, one of last year's seniors, Derick Nelson, is expected to make his debut in Australia next month, an arrival the local papers have dubbed as "the most high-profile American basketball import" they've seen in that region in a decade.

#14. Michigan-based recruits
There are seven Division I programs in the State of Michigan, including perennial powerhouse Michigan State. With so much competition, Oakland has still been able to nab a number of great in-state recruits over the years. This year's roster features nine Michigan-bred players, including regular contributors Keith Benson, Travis Bader, Drew Valentine, and Larry Wright. As the program has grown, more out-of-state recruits have come aboard, including starters Reggie Hamilton (Illinois) and Will Hudson (Wisconsin), but this team remains a heavy Michigan lean. For casual basketball fans in Michigan, Oakland is a team worth rooting for because it scours the state for strong high school talent and helps develop them into great college basketball players.

#13. A rocking pep band
Oakland's pep band is superb. They're a large and loud group that is just as active during media timeouts while playing the fight song as they are during actual possessions while cheering the team on with chants. They might also put on more face paint and other spirit-related items than the student section. The OU pep band will be there in Tulsa on Friday afternoon to cheer on and play along throughout the game. Dedication.

#12. The Grizz Gang
Although Tulsa is over 16 hours away from Rochester, Michigan, I'm hearing that the university's student government will be sending a couple of busloads of students to the NCAA Tournament game. This is nothing new for Oakland, as it has a history of supporting students' efforts to get to tournament games. The student section has grown rapidly over the last few years, and it even has a chant that is begging to be replicated by other sections around the country. It's three simple words: Poop. Your. Pants. When you hear a couple hundred students through your telecast yelling that in between Texas free throws, good luck holding back the laughter.

#11. Sweet gear
As the higher seed in the Texas game, Oakland will very likely be sporting its all-black uniforms with golden lettering. It's a sleek look, and this year it will be pulled together with some special edition kicks from Nike. The Detroit Free Press ran a story about the new tournament shoes yesterday where you can get a look.

#10. Strength in the non-conference
Does the team you normally follow typically play a measly non-conference schedule? Well, you might not be convinced that Oakland is a legitimate team yet, but there is certainly no denying the strength of its non-conference schedule. Coach Kampe takes on the toughest teams each year in part to help prepare his team for conference play. This season represented a bit of a breakthrough for the Golden Grizzlies as they were competitive in nearly every game they played against power-six schools, including a defining win over then-seventh ranked Tennessee. Every power team Oakland played in November and December is in the NCAA Tournament this season. This is a battle-tested group of guys who will not fear a team because of its conference affiliation.

#9. The Summit League is better than you think
Flowing from that last "flavor," the March-only basketball fan might say, "True, but who does Oakland play in January and February?" This is a very valid question, and providing a convincing answer might prove difficult. The March-only fan has likely never heard of most of Oakland's conference counterparts, and schools with names like IPFW, IUPUI, and UMKC inspire little confidence. But bear with me. This past season was one of the league's best to date, and certainly the strongest since three of its members joined a few seasons ago. In 2008-09, the conference ended the year as the 26th ranked league by RPI; in 2009-10, it was 23rd; and in 2010-11, it was 21st. One must also consider this year's ranking came with the inclusion of a team that very nearly went winless (that team is no longer in the league after this season). While there is still much room for improvement, The Summit League is better than you think - and Oakland just went 20-1 in it, including the tournament.

#8. An exciting brand of basketball
Coach Kampe implemented the dribble-drive offense a few seasons ago, but we are perhaps seeing it at its best this year with Reggie Hamilton as its chief conductor. The team averaged 85.6 points per game this season, which is second in the nation! For my tempo-free compadres, OU's 115.9 adjusted points per 100 possessions ranks 13th in all of Division I. Hamilton has proven to be an elite player off the dribble; his drives not only result in a lot of buckets for himself, but they also open up his teammates for passes on the perimeter. This dynamic has given Oakland a high-octane offense that is just as exciting in transition as it is in the half-court.

#7. The consummate team leader
Speaking of Reggie Hamilton, the redshirt junior has been a joy to watch this season. He's a versatile guard who shoots a high-percentage because of his ability to get great looks around the basket. But he's also a strong three-point shooter. Where Bader gets most of his looks in catch-and-shoot situations through screens or spot-ups in the corner, Hamilton can knock a defender off his feet with just a few dribbles. More often than not, that's all he needs to get enough space for the three-point attempt. His end-to-end speed and agility make him a tough guy to stay in front of no matter the situation. Most importantly, Hamilton has all of the intangibles a fan would seek in a high-profile talent: he's confident and well-spoken, and his teammates are ultimately better off because of his leadership.

#6. Black and gold
Are there two greater colors in existence? Give me black and gold over green and white, Carolina blue, or burnt orange any day.

#5. Depth
As the Oakland program has grown, so too has its recruiting profile. Consequently, there are some really good players buried on Oakland's bench who might be full-time players elsewhere. Because of the talent level on this year's roster, we haven't seen as much of talented underclassmen like sophomore Ledrick Eackles or freshman Ryan Bass. Eackles' biggest game of his career came in last year's NCAA Tournament, but a number of factors - including injury - have limited his playing time this season. Still, anyone who saw Eackles go up against Pittsburgh's guards last season know the young Louisiana native has a bevy of skills. Ryan Bass was too good for the team to redshirt him, and we've seen glimpses as to why when he's had a chance to play. Bass is a great passer and has shown a tenacity on the defensive end that, if cultivated, could make him a ballhawk in future seasons. There is also Blake Cushingberry, a big guard who can shoot the three, but he missed the season with a knee injury. Though it may seem like Oakland doesn't have much depth when one sees that six players get a majority of the minutes, the talent is definitely there.

#4. A yeoman's effort
If you want to root for a hard-working guy who never takes a play off, look for number 4 of the Golden Grizzlies as senior Will Hudson fits that description perfectly. Though anyone who watches an Oakland game could tell you that, we can also look at Hudson's offensive rebounding figures to back up the statement. Offensive rebounds are often the result of pure effort, and this 6-foot-9 forward has amassed 127 offensive rebounds this season. That's ten more on the offensive glass than he's had on the defensive glass, and it's a mark good enough for sixth in the entire nation (interestingly, Texas' Tristan Thompson has one more than Hudson). Will goes to work on every possession on both ends of the court.

#3. Confidence
During the stretch run, Oakland's players displayed a sense of confidence for the ages. There's not much showboating or chest-pounding with this team. Just confidence. They've played in some of the nation's toughest arenas this season against tournament teams, and they just finished going 20-1 against The Summit League, including three resounding wins in the conference tournament. Throughout league play, every Summit team gave Oakland its best shot yet fell short. It takes a lot of focus to get through such a schedule with nary a slip-up while remaining hungry and humble. One of the team's standout players during league season was sophomore Drew Valentine, and he continues to ooze with the confidence he's gained over the last three months. On the approaching tournament match-up, he told the Detroit News: "I want to be that guy that defends their best player."

#2. An NBA prospect in the middle
Per game averages: 18.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 blocks. Nineteen double-doubles. 55.3% shooting from the field. The conference Player of the Year award and top defensive player honor. Keith Benson is a dominant player, perhaps the most dominant at his level. There's no show to his game. He does what's necessary to he help his team win, and it just so happens that by doing so he ends up with double-doubles and a number of crowd-pleasing blocks. If you're jumping on the wagon today, there might not be many more chances to see the big man as he's a senior and on his way to a professional career. But for now, there's a game coming up against Texas. Everything's bigger in Texas, they say, and that is certainly true of the Longhorn frontcourt as a whole. But Keith Benson, in an elimination game on the biggest of stages, might have something to say about that. And as fans, it's just a pleasure to sit back and enjoy.

#1. Longevity and loyalty
Coach Kampe has been at Oakland for 27 years. He built the program from the ground up into a winner at the Division II level, oversaw the transition to Division I at the turn of the century, and now leads it into its third NCAA Tournament. Though it should almost be expected that some bigger schools will make a few calls to Coach Kampe this offseason about coaching vacancies, precedent suggests that those phone calls won't go very far. Kampe is an institution at Oakland, so there's not much reason to worry about it all ending the day a Big East school comes calling like you might encounter with some other strong mid-major programs. To end this, I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Coach Kampe. During last year's March Madness, he was asked a question about why he stays at Oakland, and the answer is pretty moving:
"It's amazing how often I get asked that. It really is. I've tried to change the answer just for the fun of it. But it really comes back down to the grass is always greener on the other side. And I'm just a guy who -- I come from Defiance, Ohio, little town. My dad put fertilizer on his yard and he tried to make it as green as he could make it. So pretty much my background -- this is my job, not to chase other jobs, but to do my job as best I can. And I really view that my job is to make Oakland a special place. I've said that many times and I'll say it again. And when I'm done with this thing I hope that people think it's a special place that kids want to go there. And we won a lot of games and we won them in the right way with good people and with good kids. And I'm also lucky that I have pretty good job security. [...] There's also something to be able to walk across the campus, to know everyone on the campus from the janitors to cooks. That's kind of a good lifestyle."
Without a doubt, Oakland is a great program to root for. So pick the Golden Grizzlies on your bracket, but don't be afraid to stick around for a while.


  1. Well-done post, Hoopsdude. Very creative, and no doubt a lot of work! This is a great time for Grizzly fans to enjoy. Hoping to make it over to the Oakland/Texas game on Friday. tmh8286

  2. Way to go! As an involved alum and long supporter of Oakland and the Grizzlies, I appreciated this in depth and interesting article which gave me 13 more flavors to enjoy.