You've heard that Texas got a tough draw. You know that Oakland is supposed to be damn good. You've heard the names Reggie Hamilton and Keith Benson, and you're nervous already.
But Oakland is not a mystical superpower in the sky to be feared. It is a basketball team we need to understand. And understand how to beat. To do that I had a chance to pick the brain of Corey from Golden Grizzlies Game Plan, who was kind of enough to share his insights on Oakland. Read on for an excellent primer on Texas' first round opponent.
Thanks for chatting with us, Corey. Can you start by giving us a quick rundown of the roster? Oakland doesn't run particularly deep, but their top six are very talented.
The starting line-up the team has used for much of the season features seniors Keith Benson and Will Hudson in the low-post, sophomore Drew Valentine at the small forward spot, and a backcourt tandem of redshirt freshman Travis Bader and redshirt junior Reggie Hamilton. Benson is an NBA prospect and the two-time player of the year in The Summit League. He's a strong defensive rebounder with a lot of post moves as well as a jump shot that has improved throughout the season. He's among the nation's best shot blockers, and even when he's not credited for a block, he's changing shots down low. Hudson is a strong counterpart for Benson. He's had an amazing senior season by being one of the most aggressive offensive rebounders in the country, which in turn results in a lot of high-percentage put-back attempts.
Valentine struggled in the non-conference season but had a pretty sensational conference season by most measures. In OU's league, he matches up well with other small forwards and fulfilled the team's defensive stopper role in addition to chipping in some scoring and better-than-anticipated rebounding. Bader is the nation's leading freshman in three-point field goals made. Hamilton was the best guard in the conference during the second half of the season. This is his first year with Oakland, and everyone knew he was a scorer, but he has blown through most fans' expectations by being a legitimate scoring threat off the dribble and from beyond the arc.
Larry Wright is a senior transfer from St. John's who was the conference's Sixth Man of the Year. He has a smooth jumper and helps quite a bit defensively against taller and longer guards. He usually has a 20-point game where his shots all seem to fall about every six games or so. Freshman Ryan Bass can give the team quality minutes off the bench, and junior Ilija Milutinovic has a respectable outside game despite being a 7-footer. He's largely been buried behind Benson and Hudson in his career and will not see much time unless there is foul trouble. Finally, sophomore Ledrick Eackles is a bit of an x-factor for Oakland. He had a really rough shooting year, and then an injury in January subsequently diminished his playing time. But as a freshman last season, his agility and speed proved successful in Oakland's tournament game against Pittsburgh where he scored 17 points and helped keep the final scoring margin respectable.
Tell us a little bit about Oakland's style of play. When they're grooving, what's the game look like? What are they doing well?
Oakland plays at a blistering pace, ranking 7th in the country in tempo. Much of that is driven by Hamilton who has proven to be a capable distributor both in transition and half-court situations. He's not the only guy on the team who likes to push the ball, as several players have open-court ability including Wright, Eackles, and Valentine. When they are grooving, you'll see a lot of touches for Benson. If the opponent doubles him, then the team has to rely on him to make quality passes to the perimeter guys who are open. Bader (45.8%) and Hamilton (37.7%) have proven capable of knocking down those open looks from three. If they choose to go one-on-one with Benson, then Oakland could very well go as well as he goes. He has put up big numbers against future NBA guys throughout his career in one-on-one match-ups.
What do you take away from Oakland's performances against major conference teams early in the season?
Those games represented a huge step forward for Oakland. Last season, the team played a very similar schedule and was run into the ground on most occasions. This year, the team beat Tennessee and played Illinois and Purdue very close, and it came within a point of knocking off Michigan State. Michigan beat Oakland pretty bad as did Ohio State, but those games came during a stretch of four games in six days for Oakland, and Benson was hindered by a nagging injury from the Tennessee game. Though the team came out of those games with a 1-6 record, most fans would agree the Golden Grizzlies left that stretch with a lot of confidence in their abilities to play with high-profile NCAA tournament teams. That confidence carried into the rest of conference play for the team, and there is no reason to believe it won't continue into Friday's match.
What worries you about Texas as a particular challenge for this Oakland squad?
As an Oakland fan, I have been most impressed with the Golden Grizzlies' will to win. Sure, they had the most talent in their conference and a lot of team chemistry, but when it mattered, they just had this overwhelming will to make the big bucket or get the key stop to seal a victory. My worry about Texas, then, is at what point does talent differential overcome that will to win. A lot of what I read about Texas is that their three star players are young with no or very little NCAA experience, but those are also three guys who will be in the NBA sometime in the next two-three years. Does their talent, athleticism, and strength as individuals trump an extremely confident, battle-tested Oakland team, albeit one with great talent for the mid-major level? I guess that is why there is always so much intrigue with these types of March games.
If you were Texas, how would you game plan to beat Oakland?
It's been a very long time since Oakland has been beat, but the one conference loss the team suffered came in a game where Keith Benson fouled out with over nine minutes left in the second half. Not having Benson in there can really change Oakland's defensive dynamic. The bad loss to Michigan came on a night when UM triple-teamed Benson and Oakland went just 6-of-31 (19.4%) from three-point range, but 13 of their 21 misses (so excluding last minute chucks) were attempts that were uncontested; the ball just wasn't going in. That was a brutal scenario, and at that time we still hadn't really seen Hamilton take over a game yet with his own playmaking ability. So if Texas' bigs can contain Benson and Hudson and the Longhorn perimeter defense is as good as the stats show, then there is a good chance Oakland's offense will struggle if history tells us anything. The key player would then likely be Reggie Hamilton and whether or not his leadership and gunner mentality would be enough to overcome the guard defense of Balbay and Joseph.
Great stuff, Corey. Good luck on Friday and enjoy the Madness.