Oakland hopes it's perfect time to face MSU
Is this a good time to get Michigan State, or bad?
Oakland University coach Greg Kampe just laughed.
"That's what I'm trying to decide," Kampe said. "What do you think?"
Two ways of looking at it:
The seventh-ranked Spartans (6-3) are vulnerable right now, showing fatigue after traveling more than 11,000 miles for games in Hawaii, North Carolina and New York. They are turning the ball over at an alarming rate, shooting free throws poorly, not living up to the Rebounding U. reputation, and guard Kalin Lucas isn't at full strength yet while recovering from surgery for a ruptured Achilles' tendon.
On the other hand, the Spartans should -- repeat SHOULD -- show up with a nasty attitude for Saturday's game against the Grizzlies at The Palace in Auburn Hills (12:30 p.m., FOX Sports Detroit).
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo challenged his players' manhood after Tuesday's 72-58 loss to Syracuse, saying they had become a "pretty boy" team while giving up endless layups and dunks. Captain Draymond Green suggested the Spartans were soft and played like "a bunch of girls."
Izzo has a history of getting results when he pushes buttons like he's pushing right now. His team better have done some serious soul-searching, that's for sure, because Oakland has Cinderella-like potential.
The Grizzlies (5-4) have shown they can compete with some high-end opponents. They had a nine-point, second-half lead Wednesday at No. 16 Illinois before losing 74-63. Earlier in the season, Oakland also led No. 19 Purdue in the second half before fading for a 15-point loss.
"We just can't finish it," Kampe said. "That's the next step. I think our kids believe they can."
The Grizzlies, now 1-25 all-time against ranked teams and 2-26 against the Big Ten, certainly will be well-prepared to do something special in March. Much is made about Izzo's challenging non-conference schedule, but what about Kampe's?
Oakland is in a stretch of playing three top-20 teams in seven days, including at No. 11 Tennessee next Tuesday. The Grizzlies also play at Michigan next Saturday and at No. 2 Ohio State two days before Christmas. It all started with a trip to West Virginia less than a month ago.
Kampe's plan is to have his team ready for the Summit League tournament beginning March 5, when an automatic NCAA Tournament bid is on the line.
"We can do it (the schedule) because our record means nothing," Kampe said. "It's three days in March, it's the league.
"This makes us better. The reason I have a good team is because I have good players. And I have good players because they want to play schedules like this. They want to play these teams. That's why they come to Oakland.
"The other thing is, we make money off it. Making money's good. We do it every year, but this year was maybe a little bit more than normal."
Kampe could afford to take on more because he has a standout player in 6-foot-11, 230-pound Keith Benson, a fifth-year senior who has developed into a possible, if not likely, first-round NBA draft pick.
Benson is averaging 18.2 points and 11.7 rebounds. He had 21 points and 11 boards against Michigan State last year. Benson, however, was held to 11 points and seven rebounds by Illinois. He did a good job passing out of constant double teams, but made only 2 of 9 shots.
"Every game can't be a Picasso," Kampe, in his 27th season at Oakland, said of Benson's performance. "He's been pretty darn brilliant all year."
Benson gets help around the basket from 6-9 senior forward Will Hudson (13.7 points, 7.1 rebounds average) and guard Reggie Hamilton (16.1 points, 4.2 assists).
With its defensive tenacity and hard work on the glass, Oakland resembles a typical Michigan State team. Oakland ranks among the top-30 teams nationally in rebounding margin (plus 8.2).
The Grizzlies outrebounded Illinois by 11, including getting 21 offensive rebounds. Michigan State, which was outrebounded by eight against Syracuse, is plus 3.9 for the season.
The Grizzlies are missing Blake Cushingberry, a 6-3, 249-pound defensive stopper. Cushingberry suffered a season-ending knee injury. Drew Maynard, a 6-7 swingman, is also out right now because of a suspension.
Cushingberry's defense could be the difference in trying to finish one of these upset bids.
Still, the Grizzlies are a dangerous opponent for several reasons, primarily Benson.
Can they shock Michigan State, which has beaten Oakland nine straight by an average of 23.9 points?
If the Spartans regroup from their self-admitted embarrassment earlier in the week, probably not. But if MSU continues to play soft up front and remains careless with the basketball, this game will be closer than many would think.
If the circumstances are right, Benson and the Grizzlies have the ability to knock off one of the big boys.
Maybe it will happen Saturday, maybe in March.
Dec. 10, 2010