ROCHESTER, Mich. — Greg Kampe plans his whole season around this time of the year.
Right now, everything is going the way it is supposed to go — except for the minor problem of the Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons.
Saturday, the Mastodons knocked off Oakland 74-72 in the final regular-season game for both teams. The Golden Grizzlies go into the Summit League tournament having won eight of their last 10 games, but both losses have been to IPFW.
To make things worse, Oakland now faces the Mastodons again next Saturday in the first round of the conference tournament.
“It’s hard to say that we’re a better team right now, since they’ve beaten us twice in the last 10 days,” Kampe said after the game. “They outplayed us down there, and they outplayed us again tonight. We’ve got a week to get better, and we’re going to need it right now if we don’t want it to happen a third time.”
Unlike Michigan or Michigan State, who can wrap up an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with a 20-win season, Kampe knows that his team only has one route to the Big Dance — a victory in the league tournament. As one of the lowest-rated conferences in the country, the Summit League doesn’t even get into the discussion when it comes to extra bids — in a good year, they might put multiple teams in the NIT.
Because of that, Kampe knows that his team’s overall record doesn’t matter in March. Either his team wins in Sioux Falls or they watch the NCAA Tournament at home. It’s that simple, and Kampe plans his entire season around that fact.
“We play our whole season to get ready for next weekend,” he said. “This is what everything is about for us.”
The plan for this season began years ago, with Kampe trying to schedule the top programs in the country. It’s harder than it sounds — Michigan and Detroit won’t play the Grizzlies after embarrassing losses at the O-Rena — and Oakland usually spends most of November and December on the road. The task of getting schools to come to Rochester gets tougher every time the Grizzlies get a big win. Along with the victories over the Wolverines and Titans, Oakland have beaten Tennessee and Oregon twice each, including once when each school was ranked in the top 25.
This season, playing the second-toughest non-conference schedule in the country, Oakland played just four home games outside the Summit League. They didn’t pull off any big wins, missing their best chance when they blew a big lead before losing to Pittsburgh in overtime. Oakland went 6-9 in their 15 non-league games, but Kampe didn’t care about that. He knew that the experience of playing at Pittsburgh, at Michigan State, at Tennessee and at Alabama would makes things easier for his team when they faced key conference games, both in the regular season and in the tournament.
In January, it looked like the strategy might not have worked. Oakland was just 3-4 in league play, including a 19-point home loss to South Dakota. But as February dawned, Oakland started winning games, including a one-point revenge victory at South Dakota. Since January 19th, the Grizzlies are 8-2, with both losses coming to the Mastodons.
That’s still not good enough for Kampe, who saw his team look lethargic in front of a Senior Day crowd against a team he knows they should have beaten.
“I expected more from this group,” Kampe said. “I thought we could win the regular-season championship, and we’re fourth, and I thought we could win 20 games again. It’s a young team, and we aren’t anywhere near where I thought we would be.”
Still, as always, it will come down to three games in the conference tournament. Win them, and the season is a success. Lose one, and they will probably earn another berth in the third-tier College Insiders Tournament.
“We know what we have to do,” said senior Drew Valentine. “We’ve got to go to Sioux Falls and earn a spot in the tournament. That’s always our goal, and we’re good enough to do it.”
In the near future, though, it is possible that Kampe will have to change his strategy. With the Big East’s “Catholic Seven” about to form their own league, there are several scenarios that would see Oakland finally escape the Summit League. The most common idea would have Detroit either joining the Catholic schools directly or filling a vacancy in the Atlantic 10. Either way, Oakland would be the favorite to replace Detroit in the Horizon League — a conference that is a natural fit for the Grizzlies. It’s a move that would have been made years ago, but the Titans have vetoed Oakland’s membership in the league.
Another possibility would mean an even bigger move for Oakland. If Creighton joins the Catholic League, Oakland could provide the Missouri Valley Conference with an entry into the Detroit market. Either way, Kampe would have to adjust his way of thinking, because at-large bids would now be a possibility. That might mean trying to find a different balance between preparing his team for league play and grabbing preseason victories.
“I’m paying very close attention to everything that is happening, but I don’t know anything right now,” he said. “We’re going to look for every opportunity to improve our situation, but at this point, no one has talked to me about anything. If they do, I’ll be listening.”
Right now, though, Kampe only has one thing in mind — finding a way to beat the Mastodons on Saturday.
“We came out flat in the first half when we played them there, and tonight we didn’t have any intensity in the second half,” he said. “We didn’t get stops, we didn’t make shots and we made terrible decisions down the stretch.