As a former Golden Grizzly for two years (my OU fan rant last season) I’d be lying if I said I felt zero disappointment in not being able to bask in the glory that is this 09/10 OU hoops season along with the rest of OU nation. Yeah sure, I can bask from a distance, but it’s not even close to the same thing as it is when in the presence of likeminded OU basketball friends and aficionados.
Coming into this season Oakland was the almost unanimous favorite to be the Summit League champion and the league’s representative in the NCAA tourney. Oakland came up just short of going dancing last season (three points short!). Anyways, this season, at least in the all important conference portion of the schedule, OU has more than taken care of business--comfortably securing a number one seed (regular season champs) in the conference tourney in Sioux Falls (March 6-9) by churning out an impressive 17-1 mark (23-8 overall).
Early on in the season when OU was making their now yearly trips to the big, bad BCS schools to get pounded on (and they largely did get pounded on), the season forecast didn’t look quite as promising. But level-headed OU fans knew it would be a struggle early on. It just had to be. Probably meant to be.
The team had to reincorporate integral fifth year senior guard/forward Derick Nelson into the offense while also learning to play without arguably the best shooter to have played college hoops in the state in some time, Erik Kangas.
No one was exactly sure if Nelson would be effective coming back from a serious foot injury that forced him to sit out most of last season. Fortunately Nelson has been more than fine, and while his ppg totals might not be close to where they were his junior year, he’s accepted a different role in his final season: defensive stopper. Though Derick is still capable of filling it up from time to time.
6’2 guard Larry Wright, a transfer from St. Johns, isn’t exactly the second coming of Erik Kangas. In fact, aside from being a threat from downtown and a dependable free throw shooter there’s not much that Larry has in common with him. But for OU to be successful Wright didn’t have to be another sharp shooting extraordinaire. He had to be himself all the while tinkering just enough with his game to find a way to fit in with his new team. And that he has. As a current student and OU hoops fan said to me recently, “Wright’s nothing like Kangas; his (Wright's) greatest strength is that he actually can dribble, drive, and make pretty good defensive plays at the right time. I'd still rather have Kangas jacking up treys in the clutch, but Larry has been worthwhile.”
Let’s not kid ourselves though, the real reason Oakland is sitting so pretty right now is because of four year starting point guard Johnathon Jones and redshirt junior center Keith Benson. Both have had phenomenal campaigns.
Jones is the antithesis of a shoot first point guard. Now, I could have just plainly said that Jones was the prototypical pass first point guard instead. But I wanted to make certain that people realize that Johnathon Jones without a doubt could be a fantastic shoot first point guard averaging upwards of 18-20 points a game and maybe gaining more accolades because of it. I mean, Jones has a unstoppable mid range-ish pull up jumper and quicks that will make your head spin. He could easily lead most mid-major programs in scoring. Yet Jones would laugh in the face of that kind of nonsense; he’d rather conform to a team oriented offense where there’s a plan in place to win, a focus, a collective effort that can be dominant if executed correctly. But make no mistake about it either, OU doesn’t need Jones to score a whole lot-there are many capable players on the team. Jones is the quintessential leader that a championship caliber basketball team must have, and so far this season his execution has been spot on. When the team’s most creative and potentially lethal scorer can lead the team to a 17-1 mark by scoring only 12ppg, you know that team is pretty darn good.
Keith Benson aka Kito
I could say lots of things (all good by the way) about the enigma that is 6’11 Keith Benson (Detroit Country Day alum). Only a few reading this will understand what I mean by enigma in this context, but so be it. They know who they are.
The short version of the Keith Benson basketball story is that Benson wasn’t highly recruited (only averaged 6.9ppg senior year of HS) and came to OU rail thin. After redshirting in 06/07 Benson has progressed more than he probably ever imagined. The jump he made from his first season playing at OU to his second was scintillating. The jump he made from last season to this season has not disappointed either. He’s bigger, stronger, and more confident with his post moves and with his jump shot. On defense he’s a menace, though, he doesn’t look the part. At all. Sure he has long arms, a nimble body, quick hops, but right as he’s swatting a shot you’d think he was reading O Magazine instead.
Kito being Kito.
Currently he’s 8th in the entire country in blocks/gm at 3.3 and alters many, many more. He’s very good at staying out of foul
trouble too. Benson’s defensive presence is what ultimately makes OU dangerous come NCAA tourney time, not just some cutesy team just content to be there.
*As an aside, here’s some analysis on Benson from some NBA Draft gurus.
From the early season struggles against the big schools (and a loss to Eastern Michigan as well) to the total dominance OU displayed during the league slate, one thing is for certain: Head coach Greg Kampe kept the team optimistic when it mattered most and kept them grounded when it mattered most. It’s easy to feel down and insignificant when getting your ass handed to you by top 20 teams. It’s also easy to get big headed when your blowing by folks like it’s nothing. Anybody who’s played sports competitively can relate with these types of highs and lows. What is always needed is a coach who knows his team better than the team thinks they know themselves. While at the time of the rampant butt whoopings it might have seemed foolish to have scheduled so many top tier programs, in the long run I can guarantee every OU player and coach knows their vastly better and more experienced for it. Now playing a high quality opponent on a neutral court won’t seem so daunting.
Greg Kampe's been the head coach at OU for 26 years
I’ve now realized that I’ve basically already put OU in the Dance (I’m setting myself up for disaster by thinking like this!). OU still has to win three games in four days to receive that elusive automatic bid (bracket here). Possible second round opponents IPFW and South Dakota State are not complete duds. Probable finals opponent, IUPUI (22-9), beat OU earlier this season by 24 at home while only losing by three to OU on the road. IUPUI can score with the best of them.
I told a buddy of mine at Oakland back very early in the conference season that it would be IUPUI vs. Oakland in the Summit League final. It's looking pretty likely. Oakland is the 1 seed. IUPUI is the 2 seed.
Tuesday, March 9th on ESPN 2 @8pm I hope my prediction comes true.
At 10pm on March 9th I hope I can start guessing which 3rd or 4th seed OU will be playing in the first round of the Dance.