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Know Your Small Conference Winners: Oakland Golden Grizzlies

Over the last decade, the Summit League has served an unusual purpose as a transitional point for mid-major schools in search of a true home. Among the defectors were Youngstown State ('01), Chicago State ('06), and Valparaiso ('07). And the future of the conference, it seems, holds much of the same. That's because perennial doormat Centenary heads to Division III ball later this year, and Southern Utah will move to the Big Sky in 2012. Continuity has left the building, folks.

So when the 2011 regular season kicks off in November, the Summit will be a ten-team league featuring a quartet of schools with less than five years of experience in the conference. And that ultimately begs the question: How is a small conference supposed to build any semblance of tradition when a third of the league gets jettisoned elsewhere every couple of years? The answer? It can't.

The big thing is, the Summit League is not what you would call a geographical-friendly conference. Locations range from the state of Utah to the state of Michigan, a distance that feels even further when you consider the cash-strapped nature of your average mid-major program. The league tournament is held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota each year, in a setting that forces Greg Kampe's Oakland Golden Grizzlies to travel roughly 700 miles just so they can snag some hardware and get a few pictures taken.

Because for the second consecutive year, that's exactly what Kampe's bunch did. They came, they saw, and they conquered without even breaking a sweat. In 20 league games including the postseason, the Grizzlies won 21 of them. Even more remarkable, Oakland is teetering surprisingly close to Butler and Gonzaga territory as a team that is bigger than the league that houses it.

Schools come and go. That's just life in the Summit. The Grizzlies don't belong here. Never did. But until that changes, Kampe is more than content to keep on collecting championship banners.

A breakdown after the jump...

Location: Rochester, Michigan

Enrollment: 15,530

Record: 25-9 (17-1)

Leading scorers: Keith Benson (18.0 ppg); Reggie Hamilton (17.4); Will Hudson (12.5)

What to know:

  • Not afraid of the big boys - Kampe made a point to schedule the best teams in the Midwest, and he willingly let his team walk into some of the toughest venues available to prepare for the tourney. Consider: The Grizz played at West Virginia (Lost by 24), at Purdue (Lost by 15), at Illinois (Lost by 11), vs Michigan State (Lost by 1), at Tennessee (Won by 7), at Michigan (Lost by 18), and then at Ohio State (Lost by 29). To the untrained eye, we'll concede that it looks like OU can't cut it against elite competition. But that logic is especially faulty when you look at the locations that each of these games were played in. Even the one-point defeat to Michigan State came at the Palace of Auburn Hills, with the majority of fans in attendance rooting passionately for the Spartans. Home court advantage of this magnitude doesn't exist in the NCAA Tournament (for the most part), so you'd be best served to take each one of these losses with a grain of salt.
  • Mr. Benson - NBA scouts have been touting Keith Benson for a few years now, and as a senior, this is his final opportunity to show the country how valuable he can be. He possesses every attribute that pro teams look for in a big man, and ranks 25th in the country in block percentage (10.3%). He's also the prototypical 20-10 player despite not being a possession killer like many other big guys in the post. Benson can run the floor as well as any other 6'11" forward in the country, and he gets his numbers within the confines of OU's offense. That's the key. Don't expect the Grizzlies to feed him the ball inside and stand around waiting for him to score.
  • High tempo + High scoring - Only six schools in America play at a quicker pace. Led by 5'11" junior Reggie Hamilton and his lightning-quick first step, the Grizzlies averaged an astounding 95.3 points per game over their last six contests. Benson's ability to stay active at such a frantic pace is a match-up nightmare for opposing big men, but the sharpshooting Hamilton is the straw that stirs the drink here. These two elite scorers complement each other marvelously, and both guys are some of the best at their respective positions in transition.

Projected seed: #13. It won't take a genius to scan the bracket and tab this Oakland team as a possible upset in round one. The Grizzlies put together a wonderful season, and gained valuable experience from being on the same floor as a handful of tournament-caliber schools from power conferences. The committee will determine its true fate, but OU certainly has the talent to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the first round.


Know Your Small Conference Winners
Ark.-Little Rock   |   Belmont   |   Indiana State   |   Morehead State   |   Old Dominion   |   St. Peter's   |   UNC-Asheville   |   Wofford