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.
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!