Keith Benson leads Oakland University to best win in program history over No. 7-ranked Tennessee

Keith Benson leads Oakland University to best win in program history over No. 7-ranked Tennessee

Patrick Hayes | Great Lakes Hoops

To be a fan of Oakland University basketball is a strange thing. When I arrived on campus at Oakland in 1999, the Grizz were just on the verge of becoming a Division I program after years of being a very good D-II program.

Oakland is a great school. I have a lot of fun memories from going there, just like anyone has from their college.

I watched a lot of great basketball games, both as a student and as an alum.

But the school isn’t the typical college experience. Oakland has a lot of commuter students. They don’t have a football team. On the weekends, a lot of the students in the dorms tend to clear out, so campus could be a pretty desolate place at times. There aren’t an abundance of shops, apartments, restaurants, and other things within walking distance that are staples of connecting colleges to their surrounding towns. Those factors don’t help build a rabid fanbase for a basketball program that some smaller schools enjoy.

Oakland has supportive fans, but for a small school with a great program, and without having to compete with football for “major sport” status on campus, it has always felt like support for the team should be greater.

Wins like Tuesday’s 89-82 victory over No. 6-ranked Tennessee, on the heels of Oakland nearly upsetting Michigan State last Saturday, will hopefully go a long way towards gaining Oakland some recognition as one of the premier mid-major programs in the country.

But make no mistake: although the attention gained in the last week is certainly beneficial to the program, close watchers of college basketball knew heading into this season that Oakland was the second best college team in the state of Michigan, and the Grizzlies get a chance to prove it Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Signature win aside, there are plenty of other reasons to care about Oakland hoops, so I’m going to lay out my case for people outside of Oakland County to care about and root for this team.

Keith Benson is the best college player in Michigan: I’ve been a rabid defender of Kalin Lucas. It’s impossible to not love Draymond Green. I think Darius Morris has potential to be very good. Ray McCallum is going to become a major star at a mid-major during his career at UD. But the most NBA-ready player in the state of Michigan is Keith Benson, and it’s not even close.

Obviously the measurables are there for Benson. As a 7-foot center with skill, that alone is enough to get any player looks from the NBA. But Benson has evolved into a force at Oakland. He arrived on campus as a skinny shot blocker who lacked polish offensively and was not very strong. He’s worked his way into being the best mid-major player in the country and a legit first round prospect in the NBA Draft.

Benson finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds against Tennessee, but that’s far from the first time he’s had a monster game against a top-flight opponent. This year, he had 16 points and 14 boards against Purdue. He had 17 and 12 against Michigan State. He had 22 and 15 against West Virginia.

Last season, he had 28 and 9 in the NCAA tourney against Pitt. He had 21 and 11 against Michigan State. He had 20 and 6 against Kansas.

Benson can score in a variety of ways. He’s a crafty finisher. He has nice touch out to the elbows on his jumper. He’s a good offensive rebounder and solid passer. Defensively, he rebounds and blocks shots, but most impressively, as a young player who routinely had a hard time holding his position against bigger post players, Benson is now able to hold his own against strong opposing centers.

Benson is fun to watch not only because he’s very talented, but because he’s worked insanely hard to make himself into the best player in Oakland’s history and the top player among Michigan’s many talented college players right now.

Greg Kampe’s passion is second to none: Kampe is in his 27th season as Oakland’s coach. He’s closing in on 500 career coaching wins. And he’s the man who has orchestrated Oakland’s ascension from Division II program to burgeoning mid-major powerhouse.

Kampe is well known for his … uh … passionate sideline antics. He also runs a viewer-friendly system that, when it’s right, produces beautiful basketball. Oakland’s win against Tennessee was very aesthetically pleasing. Oakland shot 56 percent. They shot 39 percent from three. They only turned it over 13 times.

Kampe loves shooters, he loves guards who take care of the ball and he’s coached some very tough and talented players, including Benson, Johnathon Jones, Derick Nelson, Rawle Marshall and occasional GLH commenter Mike Helms, to name a few. Oakland might be a bit unknown compared to older D-I programs, but there have been many Oakland players who have been fun to watch and great players.

Oakland has been good to Flint: Hey, GLH is a Flint-centric blog, so why not celebrate some of the Flint area connections to Oakland? When I was in school there, Linden’s Dan Champagne was a key player on the team. Grand Blanc’s Pierre Dukes hit the game-winning shot that sent Oakland to its first NCAA Tournament appearance. Powers grad Laval Lucas-Perry is currently a part of the program after transferring from Michigan and his brother, Patrick, currently a senior at Powers, along with a couple players on Mott Community College’s roster, are reportedly on Oakland’s recruiting radar.

It’s probably not a shocker that I think Oakland will handle Michigan on Saturday. Honestly, Michigan’s played better than I thought they have this season and Oakland has had a couple sub-par performances, so it could be a close game. But a win by the Grizz will complete a great week for the program and if they can follow this early-season success with their first-ever tournament win in March, this season has the makings of a program-altering one for Oakland.