The Oakland Golden Grizzlies have to be feeling good about themselves right now. They are exactly where they wanted to be at this point in the season. After a convincing 89-73 victory at Wright State to gain sole possession of second place in the H-League, Oakland (19-9, 11-4) is now in the driver’s seat to earn one of the two coveted double-byes in the Horizon League Tournament. But just a few weeks ago, it felt like Oakland’s season was going in a very different direction. They played very well in their non-league games. So it was surprising when Oakland began the conference slate with a 3-3 record, which included losses to lower-rung teams Youngstown State and Northern Kentucky. What is shocking is that all four of Oakland’s H-League defeats occurred at the O’rena, when they were 8-0 at home in conference games last season. Why were things not going well for Oakland? There seemed to be a lack of on-court chemistry; Percy Gibson was struggling after looking like an Honorable Mention All-American in November; Martez Walker was having trouble finding any offensive rhythm; Nick Daniels was not shooting the ball well compared to last year; the team was not playing much defense. Then Greg Kampe made some changes. Brad Brechting and Daniels were inserted into the starting lineup, while Gibson and Walker had to now come off of the bench. Forward Xavier Hill-Mais has also seen some substantial minutes off the bench, when he saw very little time early in the season. It was also reported in a column on Oakland’s website that a sports psychologist was brought in to help the team. But the biggest difference is Kay Felder, who is taking pressure off of himself by not shooting the ball so much. He attempted 20 or more field goals in 8 of Oakland’s first 16 games. He has not attempted that many field goals in any of his team’s last 12 games.
But now is not the time for Oakland to ease off the accelerator. Their final three games are at Valpo (who beat OU by 17 points in their first meeting), at a young and constantly improving Illinois-Chicago, and they host archrival Detroit Mercy in the regular season finale. Wright State does not hold the tiebreaker against Oakland. But the Raiders (16-12, 10-5) still have a shot at second place as their final three games are against the league’s 7th, 8th, and 10th place teams. If Wright State can hold serve and win those three games, there will be immense pressure on the Golden Grizzlies not to lose two of three. Oakland will ultimately go as far as their leader and best player, Felder, will take them. Despite him being more selective with his shots, he cannot lose the mentality to take over a game when necessary with his shooting and driving to the basket first, and his passing secondary. After all, getting to the basket means he will also get fouled and go to the free throw line. In the win over Wright State, Felder went 5-5 from the charity stripe and set a school-record by making 46 consecutive free throws. Oakland wants to start a little streak of their own. The Golden Grizzlies have won 8 of their last 9 games, and want to ride that momentum to Joe Louis Arena, and then to the NCAA Tournament. If they continue playing like they are now and do not regress to their ways of early January, Oakland should give themselves a great chance to reach their tournament goals.