The keys to Oakland basketball’s past and future success

Photo courtesy of TZR Sports

In the aftermath of the 2023-2024 season, those who followed the run that the Oakland Golden Grizzlies made most likely had a series of questions run through their mind.

What just happened? How did that happen? Why did that happen? And, probably far too soon, can that happen again?

Consider this your guide that will try to provide explanations to all of the ideas above. Here it goes.

The What:

The list of accomplishments this team put together is both long, and impressive.

It includes:

  • Round of 32 Loss in OT
  • Round of 64 Win vs Kentucky (End of Calipari era)
  • Horizon League Tournament Title
  • Outright Horizon League Regular Season Title
  • 6th in final Mid Major Poll
  • 37th in final Coaches Poll
  • 48th in final AP Poll
  • Lou Henson Award Winner
  • Horizon League Player of the Year
  • Horizon League 6th Man of the Year
  • 2 All Horizon League Players
  • Swept Metro Series
  • 2 Power Conference Wins
  • 24 Wins

The highlights here are quite obvious, but every one of the bullet points above is something to hang your hat on.

It begins in the regular season, which saw an outright Horizon League championship won for the first time in school history. The championship was won of course, on Senior Day in the O’rena against rival Detroit Mercy, in an all time game inside that building. The Golden Grizzlies provided a taste of that success way back in November, when they captured their first of two power conference wins on the year at Xavier.

March saw Oakland capture their first ever Horizon League Tournament crown, which punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, where madness ensued. Oakland got into the Big Dance as a 14 seed, and earned a date with Kentucky in the Round of 64. The Golden Grizzlies became tournament darlings and defeated the Wildcats in one of the games of the tournament. Oakland then backed up that performance by taking eventual final four participant North Carolina State to overtime, before bowing out in the Round of 32.

Awards season was also kind to the Golden Grizzlies, as multiple players earned individual honors. Blake Lampman, who also broke the school record for games played in a career, found himself on the Horizon League’s second team. Jack Gohlke took home the Horizon League’s Sixth Man of the Year before becoming the talk of the Country during the NCAA Tournament. Trey Townsend also cleaned up. He was awarded a spot on the Horizon League’s first team, while also being named Player of the Year in the conference. Not only that, he won the Lou Henson Award, an award presented to the nation’s top mid major Player. He joined Keith Benson as the only Golden Grizzlies to win the honor, and moved Oakland into a tier of its own as the only school to have two winners of the award.

Oakland and its 24-12 record were recognized nicely by national rankings after stepping into the spotlight come tournament time. Oakland received votes in the final editions of the Coaches Poll and AP Poll, ranked in a tie for 37th by the coaches and a tie for 48th by the writers. It was the first time in school history that Oakland received votes in the final editions of the polls. Oakland also ranked 6th in the after season edition of the Mid Major Poll, sitting behind only Gonzaga, James Madison, Indiana State, Yale and Saint Mary’s.

The How:

When this team first took the floor in October, a loss to D2 Walsh University ensued. How did that bunch have the best season in program history?

It starts with the personnel at coach Greg Kampe’s disposal. His best teams have had a multitude of weapons that he can draw things up too in big moments. Kampe has long said that he does not like to run sets in exhibition games, and that was one of this team’s biggest strengths. The veteran presence on this roster made Oakland the smartest team in almost every single game they played in, and with a coach dialing up the Xs and Os, it was a perfect match.

Offensively, look no further than the addition of Gohlke. As time went on in Blake Lampman’s career, it was clear that the classic “shooter” name was not his game, he thrived in other areas on the court that made it so that role was not for him. The addition of Gohlke made everything go; he was just the bona fide shooter that most of Kampe’s great teams have had. And the combination of him alongside Lampman, as well as DQ Cole, caused headaches for opposing defenses all year long. With those three running around all game long, space opened up inside for Trey Townsend to have the historic year he did. In Townsend’s 38 point outburst in the Horizon League championship game, Milwaukee was so scared to double him because of the plethora of shooters spread out on the court. This also opened up space for Conway, who has an argument of being an even better post scorer than Townsend. It clicked offensively because of options, something that Kampe hasn’t had at his disposal in a few years. That formula may be back in the forefront at Oakland.

Defensively, it starts with one thing. Rebounding. Oakland had 7 players average more than 3 rebounds per game, the first time that has happened in the D1 era. Oakland ranked 178th in rebounding percentage on Kenpom this season, after ranking 332nd last season. That improvement was drastic and pivotal. 

Not having a point guard play heavy minutes was one of the only weaknesses of this team, but it may have actually provided a boost defensively. The size on the floor at all five positions was key in the zone Oakland deployed, and also surely helped with the teams rebounding ability.

The Why:

“We just love each other.”

That quote resounded throughout the locker room all season long. Even from a coaching perspective, Kampe said that he thinks he has never enjoyed the daily grind of a season like he did this year. It was a team with a core that grew up together, with Lampman, Townsend and Conway all named captains in their fourth and fifth seasons in the program. All three could have left in the past, but all three stayed for each other. This also includes Osei Price in his third season, Rocket Watts in his fifth season of college basketball and his second in the program. There were new additions, sure, but the core of this team was built off of hardships and experience within the system, something very rare in this day in age.

That core group was certainly special, but the pieces around them fit perfectly. Oakland has so many pieces that were able to plug in and fill roles all season long. Isaiah Jones did every little thing possible, while fitting the system perfectly on the defensive end. Buru Naivalurua provided much needed sparks, including some bigtime performances in times of need. Tone Hunter was able to run the show enough to provide a punch off the bench at times that Oakland needed. Acquiring good depth was a goal in the offseason, and it proved to be one of the main reasons for why Oakland sustained success throughout the whole year.

So, Can it?

If you were shown the high level talent that Kampe’s rosters have featured over the last 15 years, you would have thought that this type of postseason would not have taken this long to happen, or be the only one. But that’s just how things work in Mid Major basketball sometimes. It is extremely hard to do what Oakland just did. Winning an outright championship and then backing it up with a tournament crown is not common, and Oakland’s history is the perfect testament to that.

One thing is sure though, sometimes all it takes is the first time. It is unreasonable to expect to be one possession away from the sweet 16 every season, but now that the formula has been discovered, there could be more chances in the latter stages of March than Oakland has had before this campaign.

If all stays according to plan, Kampe is not close to walking out the door, and this new semi-mellowed version of Kampe is someone that this crop of players thoroughly enjoyed being around. This may not have been the last trick up the old coach’s sleeve.

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