Self-mutilation in the form of scheduling has been a key to success for Oakland head coach Greg Kampe in the past.
On KenPom, Oakland’s strength of schedule ranks atop the Horizon League and No. 11 nationally, and this is not something unique for this season.
The Golden Grizzlies’ non-conference SOS has ranked in the nation’s top five three of the previous four seasons. Since 2006, it has not ranked outside the top 50.
This fall, Kampe outdid himself. His squad traveled to North Carolina, UCLA, California, and Gonzaga — all in a nine-day span to start the season — and in December they faced Indiana and Michigan State.
Even their “easier” games have not been easy.
Louisiana-Lafayette is one of the Sun Belt favorites; Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Ohio are all in the conversation for the MAC title; Robert Morris and St. Francis Brooklyn are both NEC contenders; lastly, Illinois State is expected to finish in the top half of the competitive MVC and has a win over Dayton when the Flyers were nationally ranked.
“This year was a little overboard, I’ll admit that,” Kampe said. “Even the Division III team we played [Defiance College] came in 7-0. I was shaking my head. We play tough ones every year, and this is the toughest we’ve ever played.”
The scheduling strategy has worked for Oakland in the past, when it was in the Summit League. In the last seven seasons, Kampe has led the Golden Grizzlies to two NCAA Tournaments, three additional postseason appearances in the Collegeinsider.com Tournament (CIT), and four 20-win seasons. It is also worth noting that Oakland had not finished lower than fourth place in the Summit League since the 2005-06 season, when its non-conference strength of schedule ranked only No. 78.
“The reality of it is it’s all over now, we know everything about ourselves,” Kampe said. “What we can do and what we can’t do, where we were exposed. We feel pretty good about we know who we are.”
Thanks to the brutal non-conference slate, Oakland is an easy team to write off at 5-10 (only 3-10 against Division I competition). The Grizzlies have been exposed defensively multiple times, but that was primarily against bigger, more athletic, more talented teams that do not represent the level of competition in the Horizon League.
“Our record is not what we thought it would be, but considering who we played it’s not a disaster,” Kampe said.
The Golden Grizzlies will still be a factor in the Horizon League, despite this being their first year in the conference. They have the most efficient offense in the league and a handful of playmakers. If they can stay healthy, they could contend for the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But so far, that has been easier said than done.
Senior guard Duke Mondy left Oakland’s game against Robert Morris on Dec. 22 with an injury and he missed last Friday’s game against Defiance.
Freshman point guard Nick Daniels was expected to see a fair share of floor time, but he broke his foot in October and is out for the season.
All in all, Oakland is without five scholarship players, making both competing in games and progressing in practices more difficult.
“We’re going to go to practice today with 10 healthy bodies, and two of those 10 are walk ons,” Kampe said on Monday. “We like to do a lot of 4-on-4 stuff where we have three teams of four. And we can’t do any of that stuff. It’s been unique, it’s been a challenge. But more importantly, it’s the wear and tear on the guys who are playing so many minutes.”
Kampe is fortunate enough to have some good talent in his starting lineup to make up the depth lost to injuries.
Senior Travis Bader is one of the nation’s best scorers, junior Corey Petros is emerging as one of the Horizon League’s better big men, and freshman point guard Kahlil Felder has played far more experienced than his age would suggest.
Bader leads the Horizon League in scoring with 22.1 points per game, and he drains three-pointers at a 42.9% clip. The senior guard is known for catching fire, and he has had three 30-point performances this season. In his last three games, he is averaging 30.3 points while shooting 24-of-37 (64.9%) from beyond the arc.
“It is a comfort though when you know a guy like Bader can hit 10 threes,” Kampe said. “Especially on a night when things aren’t going in, for one guy to be able to step up and do that — that’s why we feel we can win any game we play.”
Petros has started for Oakland in all three of his seasons, and he has finally developed into a consistent threat down low. The big man struggled to maintain consistency as a freshman and sophomore, but this year that has been a problem of the past as he has recorded at least 11 points in each of the last 11 games.
For the season, he is averaging career-highs of 13.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
“This last month, he’s been as consistent as he’s ever been,” Kampe said. “I think our players are doing a really good job of getting him the ball in a scoring position, and I think he’ll have to be a focal point for the teams preparing for us. If he continues to play the way he is, I think he could have a very special year in the Horizon League. He’s really doing a great job of finishing at the basket.”
Oakland entered the season with two freshmen, Felder and Daniels, competing for the starting point guard spot, but Daniels’ season-ending injury left the door wide open for Felder.
The 5’9″ rookie has not shied from the task, averaging a Horizon League-best 5.1 assists per game. His last time out, he was sensational with 10 assists and only one turnover.
He still has plenty of room to improve as a scorer (he averages 7.2 points per game on 33% field-goal shooting), but he is arguably the best freshman in the Horizon League based solely on his ability to distribute.
“In the recruiting world, he was probably the higest level recruit we had ever signed right out of high school,” Kampe said of Felder. “Sometimes when you don’t have competition, it leads to a lot of growth. It can go two ways: you can grow from it or you can become complacent. He’s the type of kid that has grown from it.”
With these three players, Oakland should be able to remain competitive with every team in the Horizon League. When Mondy gets healthy, the Golden Grizzlies will only get better.
Mondy, a former Providence transfer, is averaging 11.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Since he has missed four games this season, he does not qualify for NCAA leaderboards, but his 4.2 steals per game would lead the nation and his 5.2 assists per game would lead the Horizon League.
When looking at the team as a collective, Kampe is prepared to adjust his typical style of play. The Golden Grizzlies shoot only 43.5% from the field, their lowest mark since the 2003-04 season.
“I feel that we’re just too inconsistent,” Kampe said. “When we shoot the ball, we’re really hard to beat. I believe that at our place, we should be able to beat anybody in our league. On the road, it’s been a matter of two things for us — the ability to make shots and the ability to rebound. We got exposed on the boards against the big boys. But I will say this, against the mid-majors we held our own. Illinois State, Eastern Michigan — in those games we actually outrebounded the opponents by double digits. But we’re an inconsistent rebounding team, and that’s my concern.”
Also, their lack of depth will prevent them from pushing the tempo as often as they have in the past.
“We may not play in the league, especially on the road, at the pace that we like to play,” Kampe said. “Playing fast and shooting early probably isn’t the way to win on the road with this team. We’ll probably still play that way at home.”
The Horizon League era begins for Oakland when it plays at Wright State, which was picked to finish second in the league’s preseason poll, at 7 p.m. ET tonight. The game will be televised on the Horizon League Network.
All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.