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Mike Lopresti | | December 29, 2020

Oakland basketball learns the big challenges and small victories of playing in a pandemic

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The nominations are now closed for the happiest 2-9 college basketball team in America.

Looks like it might be the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, by a landslide. Why? Consider their journey so far, which could make them a poster team for the different and difficult and demanding times of 2020:

Shut down by COVID most of November, until three days before the season opener at Xavier. And then...

Nine consecutive road games — all defeats — including a Power-5 four-step through Michigan, Purdue, Oklahoma State and Michigan State; a slog designed partly to make sure they reach this season’s NCAA-mandated minimum game limit, partly to pay the bills. And then — finally the chance to play two games at home last weekend, except those were scrubbed by Northern Kentucky’s virus concerns.

And then...

Suddenly reassigned to go back-to-back against rival Detroit Mercy. On the road, of course.

And then...

Won Saturday in the last four seconds of overtime, won Sunday in the last second of regulation. “The kids were celebrating in the locker room, it was almost like we won the national championship,” coach Greg Kampe would say later. “To see how happy they were to win and overcome all that they’ve gone through was really rewarding.”

No, not your garden variety 2-9. Then again, nothing is garden variety this season. How to describe such a trek?

“Surreal,” Kampe said. “You’re happy to be in the gym with the kids, but it isn’t anything like you’ve ever experienced. It’s not coaching basketball the way you know it, It’s survival. Every day, you’re waiting for another shoe to fall.”

To get a feel for the road Oakland has traveled, Kampe can be our tour guide. We’ll be led by an icon, never mind if other names on the nation’s coaching marquee might be larger. He’s in his 37th season, every second and all 634 victories of it with the Golden Grizzlies. He’s behind only Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski in longevity, and has cracked the top-15 among active coaches in wins. He’s tied with Tom Izzo and behind only Boeheim on the victory list of men who have coached at only one school.

We begin on Halloween. That’s when Oakland had to hit the pause button because of COVID. The team would not practice again until Nov. 22. The season opened on Nov. 25. Rather stressful for a coach, don't you think?

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Kampe: “I worry more about the kids than I do me. I’m getting paid for this. I think it’s tremendously draining, the uncertainty of it. We had two weeks where we had false positives, so we went 21 days where we couldn’t do anything. Then we practiced three days and then we played five games in seven days.”

So the early woes were predictable. The Golden Grizzlies were mashed by Xavier in the opener 101-49, then lost to Toledo and Bradley by double figures the next two days. Two days after that, they were in Ann Arbor — and took Michigan to overtime before losing 81-71.

Kampe: “It was grueling. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t had that 21-day pause. That just killed us. We’re beating Michigan in the second half and they go zone, and we had not put a zone offense in yet. We had not practiced a day against a zone. We had one defense, we had one in-bounds play. So the mental side of that for the kids has been difficult.”

Two days after that, they were at Purdue for a 43-point thrashing. Next came Oklahoma State and Michigan State, both games relatively close as junior guard Rashad Williams went for 32 and 36 points. By then, Oakland was 0-7. Kampe’s program is accustomed to taking on all comers. In the past 15 seasons, the Golden Grizzlies have played 38 ranked opponents, of which 19 were in the top-10 and three were No. 1. But this was something else.

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Kampe: “The whole thing is, you’ve got to get to 13 games (by NCAA mandate, to qualify for the tournament). You get to 13 games, you’re quote, bowl eligible. So I played all those games early before I thought chaos would happen. And the other thing is, schools are in financial disasters right now. We had to make money. I did not want a program to get cut at Oakland or a friend of mine to lose their job because their program was cut, when I could do something to help. So we played all these money games. Stanford cut 11 sports. If Stanford’s going to cut sports, the mid-majors of the world are in trouble. So it was our duty to do it, and we did it.”

Oakland opened the Horizon League schedule with two losses at UIC. Next, supposedly and blessedly, were home games with Northern Kentucky, except the Norse had a virus pause. So last week, Kampe got word the Golden Grizzlies would instead be going 30 minutes down the road to play rival Detroit Mercy, in just over two days. The Titans were also struggling at 1-5, but Kampe’s first instinct was to say no. His team was exhausted. Oakland would just forfeit the two games.

Kampe: “I took it to my team and I let my upperclassmen vote on it, and they voted to play. Once they said they wanted to play, I stepped back.”

And look what happened.

Oakland fell behind by 12 points Saturday, charged back to force overtime, and won on Micah Parrish’s putback dunk with 4.2 seconds left. The Golden Grizzlies trailed by 14 the next day, but rallied and won on Williams’ 3-pointer in the final seconds. Kampe said a key was also a box-and-one defense used late against Detroit Mercy scorer Antoine Davis. “I think it won the game for us.” There had only been time to practice it once, for under 10 minutes.

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Kampe's pride in his players could have thawed every frosted windshield in Michigan. Suddenly, the world looked brighter for Oakland. And this is a team that has been knocked out of the last three Horizon League tournaments by one point.

Kampe: “All those things that sports are supposed to teach you kind of were emphasized for us this weekend...We’ve had so many things, you think you’re snake-bit. Then all of a sudden you win two games on the final possession, and you think it all evens out eventually, so you just keep grinding.”

Junior Daniell Oladapo Junior Daniell Oladapo

Everyone has to keep grinding in a season, where nothing is certain, or easy. Kampe has experienced a lot in 37 years, but never anything like this.

“You think you’ve seen it all, but you never have. There are times I kind of feel sorry for myself because I don’t have that much time left. To lose a year, you think about it. You don’t tell anybody, but it’s in your mind. But you can’t do that because you’re that metronome that ticks every day at practice and if you’re not consistent, they’re not going to be consistent. How you react, they’re going to react. They’re going to feed off you. So I have to go there and talk about adversity every day, I have to talk about how this is going to strengthen them ... times don’t last, tough people do...if it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger. Every one of those things, we’ve used. I want to feel sorry for myself. It’s like not wanting to play Detroit. Would that have been a I’m taking my ball and going home moment, if we had said we’re not going to play? But you’ve got to do what’s right for your kids.”

Amid all this, Kampe is still pushing his career numbers into truly rare air. But that doesn’t cross his mind much, as he tries to steady a team through all the sudden turns of a pandemic season.

“When it’s all said and done, you’re going to sit back and look at it. I think more, I’m going to wonder...why didn’t I leave? Why did I stay at one place for so long? No one does that anymore, especially not at our level. It’s mostly power-5 guys. It’s tough to do. The truth is, it’s a weight on you. But at the same time, I got to grow with the university. When I got here, we were 8,000 students, 1,500 on campus, everyone thought we were in California. Now we’re 20,000 students with 5,000 on campus and everybody knows who Oakland University is. We’ve got four NBA players in the last decade. As the school has grown, I have grown professionally at the same rate. That is a very special thing. When it’s all said and done, that’s what I’m going to cling to. But through the process, it’s not easy.”

Especially in 2020. Oakland will finally be home Friday to play Wright State. That’s what the schedule says now, anyway.

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