There was a Detroit sports media “personality’ who put out an all time cold take article in January of 2015 about the demise of Oakland basketball. It was after a loss to Detroit Mercy and titled “Oakland loss to Detroit example why it is not stepping up to level of competition” It went on to talk about about how much better Detroit was and how Oakland was simply not ready for the Horizon League.
Oakland is now 12-2 in the rivalry series nicknamed “The Metro Series.” And that’s just on the men’s basketball side of things. The women are on an even greater stretch but we’ll get to that shortly. The writer of that article simply could not have been more wrong.
Here’s hoping that the views expressed here end up as freezing cold as the takes in that article back in 2015.
Could this be the actual bottom for not just Oakland men’s basketball, but possibly the entire Athletics department?
For Oakland University athletics, men’s basketball is the flagship team. And how bad have things gotten for them?
Well, not really that bad.
However, this is a team that seems stuck in mediocrity. A level of purgatory that started in the Summit League and despite a much smoother transition to the Horizon League than other teams have experienced, they also have not won yet when it matters most.
This year’s version of Oakland men’s basketball (please note that we are differentiating the two teams as the women’s team section is coming. Give me a minute…) is a lot like watching, well, last year’s team. And kind of like the year before that. And similar to many of the years with Kay Felder. And a lot like the Kendrick Nunn team.
Get the picture?
There seems to be a pattern with these teams. The talent is there. We’re talking teams that have included three players who have gone on to NBA careers but many others who have played professionally overseas. This year’s team may not have an NBA player but they at a minimum have a professional in Jalen Moore. Who was also on last year’s team which also had NBA player Jamal Cain. So why do these teams keep falling short? The easy answer is injuries and every season this team seems to be fighting them. It doesn’t even seem possible for a team to have the amount of injuries they have gone through.
Jalen Moore with wrist and ankle injuries for two seasons. Blake Lampman out with a broken arm and now playing on a knee that clearly should have already been operated on. Rocket Watts, had blisters on his feet for most of the season and is now out with a concussion. And that’s not even accounting for the day-to-day injuries a player like Trey Townsend is going through. Go back a season and you add on not only the JalenMoore injury that seemed to send the team into a downward spiral but also that Cain had leg/feet issues that kept him from practicing and finishing the season with the explosiveness he started with. Go back even further and you find injuries to Kendrick Nunn and Martez Walker that seemed to derail the season.
Is it a fluke that these injuries keep popping up and seem to send seasons into a tailspin or is there something more to it? Or is a voodoo hex put out there by a spiteful Detroit Mercy fan? Oakland has a top notch athletic trainer in Chris Curran who took over for the incomparable Tom Ford. Chris had almost 20 years with the Detroit Lions. There’s little doubt he is able to help these athletes through their injuries and does his best to help them avoid them. That makes the fluke option look better, but still can’t real out a hex on the team.
Or is it the minutes players are being asked to play beyond healthy for them? Coach Greg Kampe has said on many occasions that his players are not tired and he feels that young college athletes should have no problem playing the minutes he is asking of them. However, we see in the NBA an increase in “load management” becoming more and more common. That said, college basketball players are very rarely asked to play multiple days in a row and when they do, it doesn’t usually involve travel. There was a time not that long ago that there was a groundswell among Oakland fans that it was time for Kampe to go and that he just couldn’t relate to players anymore. He really seemed to have adjusted and seems to have become a coach that players like a lot more. That said, is the minutes and utilizing depth something he again needs to adapt to avoid these constant injuries?
As fans clamor for more minutes for players, does this show yet another issue for the program? The depth isn’t there from a talent issue. Kampe has at times given players an opportunity from the bench, and yet, they do not seem to produce. Should they have more opportunity? Maybe. But Kampe has made it clear that if players don’t take the opportunity that is given to them, they won’t see further opportunities. If these players can’t play when their number is called, is that a coaching or even recruiting issue? It almost begins to look like there’s a deeper issue with the construction of the teams and development of players leading to increased minutes for the short rotation and with it a great chance of injury.
Beyond the men’s basketball team, the women’s team is in the midst of another subpar year. A team that Jeff Tungate took over in 2013 as they overcame scandal with the previous coach, he has served as an even keel captain to steady the ship. What he has not brought about is much success outside of 12 straight wins over rival Detroit Mercy. This last win was not as easy as OU needed a last second shot to win. Even last year as the team started a solid Horizon League tournament run, they seemed to gain their most steam with Tungate out recovering from surgery and Ke’sha Blanton serving as head coach. As she left for Eastern Michigan in the offseason and Tungate returned, there were many departures including leading scorer Kahlaijah Dean. It was a team in turmoil seemingly torn between what they had become under one coach and what they were about to be again with the return of the head coach.
No matter the reason, they’re a team that has not seen an NCAA berth since the early 2000s when they had two with the last coming in 2006. The Golden Grizzly men have only had a slight bit more success with their last NCAA tournament appearance coming in 2011. The men did have a nice run in 2017 that included a Horizon League regular season championship and NIT berth with a win over Clemson before falling to Richmond, that is still much too long for many fans without the Holy Grail of the NCAA tournament.
The problems for Oakland seem to go even deeper than the flagship teams on the basketball court. There has been seemingly excessive turnover in the Athletics department under AD Steve Waterfield. He took over from Jeff Konya who seemed to at least have a vision for the department. His branding initiatives seemed to make a splash all the way down to the Black (brown) top court that him and Kampe came up with. But what has Waterfield done? Rebranded the bear head logo even though the old logo still sits on the court years later as the change was only noticed by those that were told? Is there plans of a practice facility? Facelift to the 20-year old O’rena? Maybe even new speakers to replace the shoddy and inconsistent sound system?
Even the one program you can always count on at Oakland, the swimming and diving teams, almost slipped up at the conference championships. Well, the women didn’t. But the men’s team trailed IUPUI the entire meet and only won the overall championship in the final race. A far cry from the success an Oakland fan is accustomed to in the pool.
What is the direction of Oakland athletics right now? From this perspective, the trajectory is level at best. Maybe with a downward slope. The two basketball teams have a chance to send things in the right direction still with the Horizon League tournament looming, but if things continue for both of them how they have been going, when can Oakland fans look for change?
Is the problem with the teams? The coaches? The facilities? Or is it maybe from the top and a trickle down statement on the entire athletic department? Having President Ora Pescovitz dancing the YMCA courtside and conducting the pep band for a tune is cute, but hopefully at some level she also sees that a lack of success can hurt the university as a whole.
Is it possible this article ends up looking as ridiculous as the article that was written about the demise of Oakland basketball in 2015? Absolutely. Are things tragic right now for Oakland athletics? Not at all. They won the McCafferty Trophy just last year!
It’s starting to seem that something needs to change or they’re going to find the bottom, a place Oakland athletics has not been in in a real long time.