March 4, 2010

By Anthony Oliva III

In November of 2008, it was all falling into place for Oakland's Derick Nelson. He was, by some publications, The Summit League's Preseason Player of the Year on a team that looked every bit a contender to win the conference.

Then, it happened.

As the team's last practice before its first game was winding down, Nelson went up for a 3-pointer and came down on a teammate's foot. The coaching staff originally thought it was just a twisted ankle. X-rays revealed that it was actually a broken foot.

The senior would eventually have to take a medical redshirt and watch Oakland's impressive, yet unfulfilling 23-13 season from the sidelines.

"We won 23 games without (Nelson). I think it would have been 28 or 29 had he been there," said Oakland head coach Greg Kampe.

After the season, Nelson was faced with a difficult decision. Father of a three-year-old daughter, Nelson had planned to play pro basketball in Europe after graduation to help support her. And, having graduated on time, Nelson could have left to go overseas after that academic year. But, the 6-foot-5 forward, who was given another year of eligibility due to the injury, just couldn't leave Oakland like that. He had some unfinished business.

"I was thinking about going overseas, but mainly because I have a three-year old daughter and my main motivation was to take care of her. I knew going overseas was going to help me take care of her sooner, but I just wanted to come back and get a championship," said Nelson of winning a conference tournament. "I couldn't leave college without getting my championship, and I knew I would have a chance with this team, so I decided to stay."

Now, a healthy Nelson, averaging 11.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game, is helping fuel an Oakland attack that concluded the regular season with a Summit League record .944 winning percentage, having breezed through conference play with a 17-1 record. Overall, the Grizzlies are 23-8, and their extremely tough non-conference schedule included losses to Syracuse, Kansas, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Memphis and Oregon.

But, as players and coaches will corroborate, there is still a lot left to be done. Despite Nelson acknowledging that he is pleased with his decision to come back to Oakland, he cannot yet call this season a success.

"If we don't make the NCAA Tournament, even with winning the regular season title, this year would pretty much be a let down for me personally and for the team itself," said Nelson, who was honored as second-team all league this season. "We're not satisfied just winning the conference regular season. We definitely want to make the NCAA Tournament and make some noise."

For Oakland, that NCAA Tournament berth has been elusive. Oakland has been competing in Division I since the 1998-99 season and only once, the 2004-05 season, did the Grizzlies earn a bid.

Last season, with Nelson on the bench and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line, Oakland lost to North Dakota State, 66-64, on a jumper with three seconds left in the finals of The Summit League Tournament.

The hard luck continued for the Grizzlies. After the North Dakota State loss, Oakland played in the Tournament. With a chance to go to the semifinals, Oakland was eliminated by Bradley on a 75-foot buzzer beater.

Nelson has been on the court for some heartbreaking losses as well. As a sophomore in 2006-07, the Grizzlies squandered an 11-point lead to eventually lose to Oral Roberts, 71-67, in the tournament final, once again narrowly missing out on an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

"They've been so close to the dream and have had it yanked out from underneath them a couple of times," said Kampe, The Summit League Coach of the Year.

That's why this team is, according to senior point guard Jonathan Jones, "focused as ever."

"Having been so close, I think they know and understand that that's what they're playing for," Kampe said. "That's what they really want - to play in the NCAA Tournament. This season's record was a really good accomplishment, but it pales in comparison to playing in the NCAA Tournament."

Oakland is the conference's No. 1 seed and faces UMKC when the tournament kicks off on March 6. The Grizzlies are only three wins away from the ultimate goal.

"I told them that we need to finish the thing off in the league tournament for (their record) to mean something," Kampe said. "Nobody is going to believe you if you go into the conference tournament and get beat."

The thing is, Oakland has been beat only once in 2010. That's because this team is loaded with talent, despite losing Erik Kangas, its top scorer from last year.

Center Keith Benson was named The Summit League Player of the Year. The 6-foot-11 force in the middle led the league in rebounds, blocks and double-doubles. For the year, Benson led Oakland with 17.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. Running the offense is Jones, an all-league first-team selection, who is putting up 12.7 points and dishing out 6.5 assists a night.

Nelson knows he is fortunate in his last year of eligibility to return to such a capable roster.

"Things happen for a reason and that injury is the reason I was able to come back this year and be part of this team," Nelson said. "I would have loved to play last year and not sit out, but I was able to come back with this team so it's not a complete loss."

More than just his production on the court, Nelson, elected team captain along with Jones, has used his experience being on the bench last year to improve his contributions to the team off the court.

"This year I think he's been an outstanding leader and that's something he really never was," Kampe said. "He was always a kid that showed up, did his job, kept his mouth shut and wasn't someone who wanted to lead, but I think sitting out last year he really saw the importance of leadership."

Nelson wants to win above all else - in fact that's why he isn't in Europe now - and that is a message that he has portrayed to the team.

"I had all the individual achievements, but I didn't have a championship," Nelson said. That's the main reason I came back. This is what you play college basketball for, to get in the NCAA Tournament and play for an NCAA title."

And, with three more wins, Nelson's goal and the team's goal will be achieved. His motivation for coming back will be completely validated.

"He didn't want to go out with injury and be done," Jones said. "He has a lot of pride in this program and in himself, and he wanted to come back and give it one more shot to get to the tournament, because he's a winner."