Behind Enemy Lines with the Grizzlies Gameplan

Dylan Burkhardt
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Corey, from the Oakland basketball blog Grizzlies Gameplan, agreed to answer a couple questions about this year’s Oakland squad in preparation for Saturday’s game. Grizzlies Gameplan is a terrific blog and certainly worth a read if you want to get your Oakland hoops fix. I’ll also be answering some questions over there but, for now, here’s our exchange:

Michigan fans probably missed Oakland’s upset of Tennessee due to overlapping games on Tuesday night. Can you give us a quick rundown of the game and explain the keys to the road upset?

In the first half, it was all Keith Benson. He had 20 of the team’s 39 points. He hit his first three-pointer of the year in that half when they left him wide open on the perimeter, and he had a couple real nice post-ups against their starting center to get some easy buckets (well they looked easy). Tennessee had a nice run and finished with an 11 point lead heading into halftime. But in the second half Oakland came out pretty strong and went on a run of their own. I think that was the key to the game. Oakland’s been close in a lot of games against ranked teams, but it was a second half run that ultimately killed the team’s chances. In this game, with a subdued crowd for Tennessee and some good things rolling the way of the Golden Grizzlies, they were able to put together a sustained run where they got the lead. It was primarily sparked by a few hustle plays and also some key makes by the reserves – Benson only had six points in the second half. Truly, it was a complete team effort. At the end, Larry Wright, who has recently reignited himself as a scorer, hit an incredible three-pointer that sealed the game. It was down to free throws in the last minute, except Tennessee was the team fouling.

Keith Benson is obviously terrific and is probably the best player that Michigan has faced this season. Let’s hear two of the 6-foot-11 senior’s strengths and weaknesses.

Keith Benson has come far in his five years at Oakland (he redshirted his freshman year). This season he’s been able to go up against some of the best frontcourts in the country (Purdue, Illinois, etc) and has looked great in all cases. He’s a double-double machine and can change opponent’s offensive gameplans because of his interior presence. He’s a great shot-blocker, and not just against Summit League teams. Watching him stuff dudes from West Virginia and Michigan State proves that. This season, I would say watching him post-up players in one-on-one situations has been great. Often teams will double-team him which is smart by the other team but it prevents him from getting many good looks if the passes to him aren’t quick enough. He had some great post-ups against Tennessee’s Brian Williams, who is a very big dude, and the ease and patience he has in finding the right angle is a big strength. Historically, one of his weaknesses was not really displaying much emotion on the court. I know that’s not a tangible weakness, but he kind of always just went about his business. So it was great to see him give a fist pump when he drained a triple against Tennessee and get a little fired up after the win. Oakland needs that from him as a senior leader on the team. Overall, the dude has been playing lights out this year and has shown improvement in most areas where folks wanted to see some.

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I previewed Oakland for the Basketball Prospectus and my main worry was replacing the production of point guard Jonathan Jones and wing forward Derick Nelson.  Who has filled their shoes and how have they performed?

A valid concern, indeed. You would have seen Blake Cushingberry fill the defensive stopper role played by Nelson, but he went down with a season ending injury just after Midnight Madness. Drew Maynard is another guard/forward who has some of the athleticism and ability to get to the basket as Nelson, but he just saw his first game action on Tuesday due to a prior suspension. So sans those two guys, it’s been a combination of players replacing Nelson’s production. Will Hudson has more or less made up for Nelson’s scoring. Hudson is having a senior season beyond what any Oakland fan probably thought possible. Nelson was also a good rebounder, and OU’s had some better rebounding efforts from the guards, especially Larry Wright at times. As for Jones, Wright has been the primary PG but in the last two games he has shifted more to a scoring role. Against Tennessee, Coach Kampe said he told Wright that he wasn’t a point guard, I guess to get him to feel confident about hitting the shot that sealed the game. So that comment kind of throws a loop in our PG position. The guys in that role – Wright and Reggie Hamilton – have more than made up for his scoring. The team just doesn’t have a steady ballhandler so turnovers are up this season and can be a real thorn for this team on an off night.

If you were game planning against Oakland, what are two or three areas where you would focus your attack?

Pressuring the guards. They’ve faced a lot of pressure, primarily against Purdue, and have been prone to committing turnovers. So that’s an area to look at if Oakland is down. When a team forces turnovers on the perimeter, it often leads to fastbreak points which is how teams get started on runs. As noted, those runs have hurt Oakland against Purdue and Illinois, but they bounced back strong against Tennessee. I haven’t had a chance to take a second look at the Tennessee game, but my early thought in the first half was that some of UT’s more athletic guys on the wing were getting into the lane rather easily. That probably stemmed from the size disadvantage OU has at those small forward positions. By doing so, you take a chance of dealing with Benson’s swat-ability, but UT was able to penetrate and then dish off to an open guy so it worked for a bit.

Oakland plays absolutely loaded schedule with road games at West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan, and Ohio State. Can you explain Kampe’s scheduling philosophy and also how this team has grown from these games.

Coach Kampe has always scheduled rather tough in the non-conference schedule. If you go through all the times he has talked about it, he always says the same things: exposure for the program, money for the program, and the chance to find out his team’s weaknesses since they’re playing teams that will expose them. This year the schedule might be the most brutal I have seen since following the team. A part of that is because of Keith Benson. By going up against the Mike Tisdales, JaJuan Johnsons, and Jared Sullingers, Benson has a chance to showcase his ability on a national level against the guys who he will be evaluated against come next year’s NBA Draft. That is important for a program like Oakland which will get lost in the shuffle of the Summit League come January and February as far as national (and often regional) interest goes. With each game, Oakland has limited the other team’s margin of victory, and you could kind of tell it was starting to boil over and these guys really, really wanted to get that upset. This extends back to last season when they were universally trounced by top-ranked teams. Fortunately it came against Tennessee. We’ll see how they come out after such a big win against Michigan.

Let’s hear a prediction for the game. What team wins and what players shine?

I think it depends on how Michigan guards Benson. If they double-team him with some smaller guys or the young combo of Morgan and Horford, then Will Hudson will need to find his rhythm and Benson will have to find the open man on the perimeter. From there, it could come down to which team is more effective from the perimeter. Both teams have the ability to get hot, though Michigan might have more shooters than Oakland. Depending on how Oakland approaches Darius Morris, he could be bound for a big game based on his sheer ability. But I do like the way Larry Wright is playing and think he matches up well with Morris. On paper, there is reason to like Oakland in this match, especially considering their performances as of late. However, we have to remember that these guys playing for Michigan are big-time program players. They might be young, but there is a reason they’re at Michigan and not Eastern Michigan. Oakland has a lot of talent this year, but just because UofM isn’t ranked doesn’t mean it’s not a talented team this season. It’ll probably be a close and exciting game, but I won’t go as far as picking a winner!

  • AG2

    I really think the key is going to be denying the open layups that MSU and Tennessee seem to give up willingly as the cost of playing up-tempo.

  • Anthony

    If im michigan i double team benson all afternoon and force some other guys to beat me. I also play alot of zone and mix and match my defense. I also really attack him on both ends of the floor try and get him in too foul trouble, and get him off the floor.

  • MikeSal

    I’m interested to see how Morris plays against OU. If they throw some zone against us look for him to drive more instead of just swinging it around the perimeter. I think JB is going to encourage these guys to drive and kick and not just settle for a jump shot. Defensively we have to have the same intensity in order to keep up with Benson and Wright. Double teaming is an option especially since Morgan has been in so much foul trouble the last couple of games. Horford’s play will be key for us to get this win. He has a knack for getting loose balls and has simply outworked his opponent. Our help side defense is great right now and will be certainty be tested on Sat. A win against a team like OU is “expected” but this one will have to be earned. They are a good team and I’m excited to see how we play.

    PS “baby blues?” did anybody else find the announcers overusing this term last night? Just an observation.

    • Mith

      That and “The Butterfly”. Also Tim Doyle must have said at least 10 times that the team needed to stop shooting 3’s. OK, Tim, we got it, you don’t need to keep repeating yourself.

      • AG2

        He might end up repeating himself, all but 2 or 3 of our conference games are on Big Ten Network.

  • jihadistjohn

    people need to stop letting evanston ivy league RUDY tim doyle get under their skin…buy an XM, sync up the DVR = pure heaven…rinse & repeat for all other unqualified color commentators in all sporting events up and down the dial…not much use for any BTN booth that doesn’t have tom hamilton or gus johnson doing PBP anyway…just be happy our appearances on the Four Letter are limited

    • JimC

      I like the nicknames, even if they seem corny. So we have
      The Butterfly = Morris
      Metrics = Evan Smot

      • sullycu

        I like Colt45 over “the butterfly”. The way Tim Doyle calls Morris that is frankly kind of creepy. For e.g. “Look at the beautiful butterfly”

        • sullycu

          colt 45 as a nickname for colton christian

          • mgocanada

            a better nickname for colton christian would be “benchy”.

        • Jeff

          Agree 100%. He’s needs to stop that. He’s obviously hoping it catches on, because he says it about 20 times a game. I hope he doesn’t do any more Michigan games.

      • bird

        I still feel strongly that Jordan Morgan’s nickname should be “Tracy.”

        • JimC

          LOL!, or maybe “Captain”

  • Tweeter

    I am very interested to see what the crowd will be like for the Oakland game. With limited students around and Oakland not really having a ton of cache (though the win versus Tennessee helps), how many people are going to show up for what will likely be a very good game. I also wonder how many Oakland fans there will be? I have no idea how they do for their home games, but seeing as how most of their students are local kids they would travel pretty well to Ann Arbor.

    • Gary

      At a previous game, the Oakland fans were numerous and vocal. Several were sitting behind me and were having a great time poking fun at a typical small, quiet Michigan crowd. I hope there is a good turnout (unlikely given the holiday break) and that those who do show up make some noise. I am getting tired of feeling self-conscious about being the only one standing in my section cheering when we force the other team to take a time out.

      • Tisdale

        OU fans will be fired up from their win at UT and will be in Ann Arbor and will be vocal cheering on their precious Grizzlies…just watch.

    • JimC

      I can’t decide whether to go, or watch from the sports bar… this is a tough call.

      • jihadistjohn

        no TV coverage

        • JimC

          Oh crap i spaced out and didn’t even notice.
          I just bought a Holidays Tix Pkg (Bryant, PU, PSU).

          Jihad, can you loan me $30?

          • http://wolverine.com Mich Fan

            You can get tickets as cheap as $5, less than you’ll spend at the sports bar. Just get the cheap ones and move down to the better seats, can’t imagine anyone will stop you, and more than likely there will be quite a few pretty good ones available.

  • Tweeter

    Fifteen minutes until former Wolverine Reed Baker and Fla Gulf coast take on the Buckeyes on BTN. Has anyone seen the new BTN commercials with Gus Johnson? Pure awesome. Thought I would give BTN some love since Tim doyle seems to be single-handedly trying to take it down.

    • jihadistjohn

      totally agree in re: gus johnson…they need to promote him to the moon…he has a genuine love for the sport and could make a game of jacks sound exciting…detroit guy too, same HS as jordan morgan…we’re gonna benefit because he was no longer needed calling fake, scripted pro bouncyball

    • JimC

      Gus Johnson is the best.

    • JimC

      Saw the halftime score, it was roughly OSU 46- FCGU 19, and that was enough exposure for me.

    • MaizeNBlueJ
  • mgocanada

    Since the key to the game is handling Benson, the best thing we can do is take him out of it by getting him in foul trouble. We need Morgan and Horford to attack the basket, and Darius to drive at every possible opportunity. This isn’t the game for McLimans to be jacking up threes. On D, we should rely on the zone more than usual and force them to shoot from the perimeter. I would like to see Morgan and Horford on the court together early on, double teaming Benson and just getting in his face. We need to figure out how to contain these big men, because while Benson may be the best player we’ve faced, we will face better ones: Jared Sullinger comes to mind.

    • http://hustlebyanymeansnecessary.com/ Kim Jong Skillz

      Sullinger is good but he’s only a freshman, there’s noway he’s better then Benson. He has raw talent and POTENTIAL. Benson is a PROVEN 5th year red shirt senior. His number’s aren’t flukes, that’s why they happen to every big team we’ve played the last 3 years.

  • wayman britt

    This is going to be a great game. Will there be any other way to watch this great game besides ESPN3? (not sure what service has espn3). Justin.TV?

    • mgocanada

      i find justintv’s basketball streamers have some sort of anti-michigan bent. but lately I’ve been having some success with firstrow.net.

      • mgocanada

        But yeah, if that person who put the dread UTEP game on JTV wants to do another solid and make a private channel for us UM-Hoopsters, I’m all for it.

  • tin mad dog

    This looks like it will have a link to the game:

    http://www.myp2pforum.eu/threads/49525-NCAA-Basketball-Dec-13-19-Streaming

  • http://@ufl.edu Mattski

    If they were playing anyone else I would be rooting like heck for Oakland. They will make a great Cinderella come the NC2As.

  • Giddings

    This season’s RPI is still in its early stages, but if you want to use it for ranking “how good” a team is, Oakland will be the 2nd best team we’ve faced this year (behind Syracuse):

    Michigan = 78
    Syracuse = 12
    Oakland = 41
    (Harvard = 85)
    (Clemson = 116)
    (Utah = 121)
    (UTEP = 200… ouch)

    • Dylan Burkhardt

      KenPom rankings are a much better indicator at this point in my humble opinion.

      SC Upstate 306, BGSU 272, Gardner Webb 288, Syracuse 9, UTEP 75, Clemson 47, Harvard 91, Concordia N/A, Utah 116, NCCU 296, Oakland 72

    • Beast1530

      RPI tells nothing about how good of a team really is. KenPom is a much better indicator of how good of a team they are.

      • mgocanada

        Yes, Ken Pom thought Oakland had a 9 per cent chance of beating Tennessee, and indeed, his numbers never lie.

        • Dylan Burkhardt

          The rankings are one thing… And they are significantly better than anything like the RPI, because they are actually based on stats and not just win loss records.

          About the projections, which your sarcasm infers that you are criticizing… They are pretty damn accurate:
          http://kenpom.com/blog/index.php/weblog/prediction_tracker/

  • Ryan

    Oakland fans will be out in full force, according to a few of my sources who go there or graduated from there.