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Michigan’s team to watch this March plays in the Horizon League

The Oakland Golden Grizzlies are creating an unmatched culture in the Midwest.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Oakland Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

For basketball fans everywhere, Oakland is most associated with a superstar-caliber team, Roaracle, Steph Curry, and a certain 3-1 lead.

But over 2,000 miles away in Rochester, Michigan, Oakland University is taking college basketball by storm.

If you haven’t noticed the Grizzlies yet, now is a good time to take a look.

The Grizzlies made national headlines in 2011 when they nearly upset No. 4 Texas in the NCAA Tournament, losing 85-81. Last year, they were led by 5’9’’ point guard and current Cleveland Cavalier Kay Felder, who averaged 24.4 points per game and 9.3 assists.

But it’s possible that the Grizzlies have never been as good as they are this year.

Their best record ever at 24-7 was cultivated by recruiting home-grown talent. Eight players on the roster are from Michigan and two of their three leading scorers, Sherron Dorsey-Walker and Martez Walker, transferred back to their home state — Walker from Texas and Dorsey-Walker from Iowa State. Both played together at Pershing High School in Detroit, along with Felder. Look even closer and Oakland has swayed two other key transfers in Illini guard Kendrick Nunn and Oklahoma State playmaker Stevie Clark

There have been a few bumps along the way, including four losses in a five-game span in January against the likes of Cleveland State and Wright State. At the time, it looked like Valparaiso was a lock to win the Horizon. However, Oakland stormed back and notched a season sweep of the Crusaders to earn a tie in the standings and the top seed in the conference tournament.

“Once we got back to believing in ourselves and worrying about our next play instead of our last, it made a huge difference in our confidence levels and [ability] to make shots,” junior Jalen Hayes said.

The trio of hometown stars, Walker, Dorsey-Walker, and Hayes, are leading the team with 17.1, 15.9 and 12.8 points per game respectively.

“I think [Oakland does] a good job pitching that family aspect from the start,” Hayes said.

Walker added that the team plays as a unit and compared the atmosphere at Oakland to what he experienced at Texas.

Dorsey-Walker credits the small-school environment and the team’s unique makeup for its successes.

“You got three high-major transfers, you got some good local guys, you just got a huge mix of talent,” he said.

Oakland is different from any other mid-major in the game and that starts with head coach Greg Kampe. Kampe has been at Oakland for 32 years, putting him only behind Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewksi as the longest tenured coaches in Division I. Furthermore, he has 558 wins and counting and is a hero in Rochester. Kampe is known as a “tough love coach,” but at the core one who truly wants each of his players to succeed.

“He’s gonna put you in a position where you’re using your strengths instead of your weaknesses,” Dorsey-Walker said.

However, it has been a tandem effort by the coaching staff. Both Hayes and Dorsey-Walker credited assistant coach Cornell Mann as also being effective in wooing them to Oakland. Both knew him as a prominent Detroit-area figure, and Dorsey-Walker knew him as having experience with both Iowa State and Michigan-area colleges.

This year, more than ever, Oakland has been able to solidify its style as a team.

“Over the years, as I came to Oakland, we were so dynamic offensively,” Hayes said. “This year, I think we really honed in on the defensive end.”

Hayes has been huge in this regard, averaging a team-high 7.9 rebounds per game. Several players define Oakland’s brand as being extremely aggressive in all sides of the game.

This has led to thrashings of Alec Peters and Valpo, as well as an end-of-season rampage. At the end of the day, for the Golden Grizzlies, it’s always Detroit, Michigan and brotherhood first.

“We’re willing to put aside individual goals and just focus on what the team has to offer,” Dorsey-Walker said.