By NOAH TRISTER
Feb. 8, 2011
ROCHESTER, Mich. - The easiest way to measure Oakland University's
basketball success is by mentioning the school's name and watching for
"People are starting to know that we're in Michigan, not California," center Keith Benson said.
Led by the 6-foot-11 Benson, Oakland has
become the Summit League's dominant program. Although a loss last
weekend ended a 20-game regular-season winning streak in conference
play, the Golden Grizzlies still lead the league by 2 games and are
eyeing their second straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
Oakland lost big in the first round to
Pittsburgh last season, but the Golden Grizzlies are hoping for an
extended postseason run this time after beating Tennessee and playing
Michigan State close in December, .
"Playing on a national stage like that,
in front of big teams, you really get to see where you place against
them," forward Will Hudson said. "On a higher stage, things get exposed,
so you know what to work on. We play such a tough schedule and then we
learn from it, and then take that into conference play."
The Golden Grizzlies have overwhelmed
the Summit League recently, going 17-1 in the 2009-10 regular season
before sweeping to the conference tournament title. This season, Oakland
(17-9, 12-1) has outscored conference opponents by 16.1 points per game
-- even after losing 100-88 at IUPUI on Saturday.
The 20-game winning streak was even more
impressive considering the grueling travel Summit League teams must
endure. The league includes teams in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah.
Benson was the school's crucial catch.
He averaged only 6.9 points per game as a high school senior at nearby
Detroit Country Day, then redshirted his first season at Oakland, but
he's grown about 3 inches in college and put on enough weight to become a
legitimate NBA prospect at 230 pounds. Benson, a senior, is averaging
17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds this season.
"He just worked extremely hard and got better," coach Greg Kampe said. "I give the kid all the credit in the world."
Hudson, another senior, has come on
strong this season, shooting 64 percent from the field. Hudson is from
Wisconsin, so when he first found out about the possibility of playing
at Oakland, his reaction was predictable.
"I was just like, 'I don't want to go
out all the way to California,'" Hudson said. "That was before Oakland
was on the map."
Hudson soon found out all about
Oakland, a school of about 15,500 undergraduates on a suburban campus
not far from Auburn Hills, where the Detroit Pistons play.
Oakland lost to Michigan State 77-76 on
Dec. 11, then went to Tennessee and beat the Volunteers 89-82 three
days later. That victory earned the school plenty of attention.
"We were like rock stars for three days," Kampe said.
Oakland also lost 92-63 at Ohio State
on Dec. 23. Last season, the Golden Grizzlies' schedule included losses
to Kansas and Syracuse.
Although the Golden Grizzlies lost to
both Michigan State and Michigan, it's possible Oakland could be its
state's only representative in the NCAA tournament. Of course, running
away with first place in the regular season guarantees nothing, with the
Summit League's automatic bid going to the conference tournament
"It's a very pressure-packed situation,
especially when you're the team that's been the dominant team," Kampe
said. "Our loss Saturday probably took away any hope we had of an
If the Golden Grizzlies do reach the
NCAA field, they'll try to become a memorable March underdog. Oakland is
one of several teams from lesser-known conferences that could jumble a
few brackets this year, including Belmont (Atlantic Sun), Wichita State
(Missouri Valley) and Coastal Carolina (Big South).
Every team dreams of a run like
Butler's last year, but just a win or two is usually enough to turn an
NCAA tournament into a thrill for a team like Oakland.
"Who knows what's going to happen?"
Hudson said. "It's definitely a cool thing. I've been here for four
years, and it's definitely a humbling experience to look back and see
how far this program has come."