Oakland head coach Greg Kampe recently joined the Mid-Major Madness Podcast, where he discussed the dramatic and surprising roster turnover the Grizzlies have endured this offseason. The full audio of our conversation is embedded below.
Drew McDonald’s three that gave Northern Kentucky a last-second win over Oakland in the 2019 Horizon League semifinals could have been a cliché opening scene to that sports redemption story you’ve watched a million times. A team suffers a heartbreaking loss, vows to stick together, works hard in the offseason, then comes back and wins the ultimate prize the next year.
It’s textbook. So naturally, that’s what Oakland coach Greg Kampe felt in the locker room after that game. That disappointment in falling just short of the season-long goal was mixed with a strong sense of hope. The Grizzlies turned what should have been a rebuilding year into an 11-7 conference record that almost brought them to the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament. And in 2019-20 they were supposed to bring everybody back. Kampe says that he thought his team would be good enough to even advance in March Madness. Despite the loss, it was one of the best possible times to #WEARtheBear.
Six days later, it was all going according to plan. Potential graduate transfers Xavier Hill-Mais (18.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.5 apg), Brad Brechting (9.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 58% FG), and Jaevin Cumberland (17.2 ppg, 3.5 apg, 39.9% 3PT) announced in a single press release that they would all return.
In the release, Cumberland said the following:
“The three of us have been together since day one and we want to finish what we started together,” said Cumberland. “We want to win a championship together and for our great fans. We came in with a mission and want to complete that mission.”
Around this time, subs James Beck and Stan Scott entered the transfer portal. They were role players who were expected to see more minutes in 2019-20. Disappointing losses, but not the end of the world. The bigger blow was when Braden Norris (8.4 ppg, 5.2 apg, 1.4 spg) entered the portal shortly after the Final Four. Norris was going to be the starting point guard after a standout freshman season.
That hurt. A lot. But not as much as this, less than a month after that press release was published:
Oakland guard Jaevin Cumberland will be a grad transfer, source told @Stadium. Averaged 17.2 points this past season.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) April 11, 2019
Kampe takes some positions regarding transfers that he knows puts him in the minority in his profession. They’re ones that, as a staff, we have even railed against. But Kampe, who has coached for over 40 years and is one of the most recognizable mid-major coaches in the game, has an important perspective. And though you may disagree with him (or not!) he does raise some valid points.
For one thing, he has a huge problem with how the transfer portal functions and why it was put in place. The reason for the portal, he says, is that it’s an answer to the stories we’ve gotten so used to about coaches who would refuse to grant releases to players to go play for specific schools.
“So what the overreaction to this all was, ‘let’s take it out of the coach’s hands now. The coach shouldn’t have say in this. If the kid’s gonna leave, the coach isn’t going to say no you can’t,’” he said. “So the overreaction was, let’s create this portal where all you have to do is put your name in and you become a free agent.”
Kampe says one of the problems is that players do not even have to notify their coach that they are entering the portal — all they have to do is go to the school’s compliance office to take care of it. Maybe that isn’t the worst thing in the world. But what it’s caused, Kampe believes, is for players to be recruited during the season either contrary to or navigating around the NCAA rulebook. Last season, Kampe said Hill-Mais, Cumberland and Brechting would go home after games to messages from other schools trying to lure them away as potential grad transfers.
That’s where it gets messy. In the post-FBI scandal world of NCAA basketball, it’s not hard to imagine situations going from a few secret phone calls to a few secret “strong-ass offers.” The free agency nature of the transfer market could be a direct threat to the NCAA’s efforts to clean up the game.
Even having grad transfers at all could create this problem. Kampe also raises another point, and it’s one that does not surface often during these debates: the impact transfers make on the teammates they leave behind. Though he didn’t mention Cumberland by name, it was easy to figure out who he was talking about when he said:
“He decides to take a grad transfer because it’s best for him. But what about the other 11 kids on that team who he played all those minutes? He became an important part of the team and they all have dreams too about going to the NCAA Tournament. They all have the same dreams he does. But because he’s just going to move on to the next place, that ruins it for the other 10, 11 kids.”
Kampe also gives the same anti-transfer spiel that coaches, fans, and media like to rattle off whenever the debate comes up: What ever happened to sticking with it during the tough times? Look what Frank Kaminsky did. Kids these days don’t know how to handle adversity. It starts in AAU ball. Et cetera.
“Where in real life can you be working on a team and say ‘oh screw it, I’m gonna go into a portal and see who else wants me?’” Kampe asked. “It just doesn’t exist. I’m having a hard time with this, as you could tell.”
Ignoring that Kampe just described LinkedIn, his line of thinking isn’t outlandish. There is something to be said for a university teaching students how to deal with and overcome adversity. The debate only comes when you weigh that against the value of a player trying to further his own career.
Ask Kampe about whether a player should transfer if he thinks it will help him get to the pros, and he cites Kay Felder and Kendrick Nunn — two of his former players who are now in NBA systems. Or the 72-win Chicago Bulls, who surrounded Michael Jordan with a cast of stars who started at mid-majors. Ask him about a player transferring to a system that better fits his style, and he will pull out the Kaminsky story and talk about subs working their way up into stars.
He’s not wrong, by the way. But again, it’s a philosophical debate between whether the team (and, by extension, the university and coach that profits off the team) should be the priority or the player (who sees college as a springboard to a professional career, just like every other college student).
It’s no shock where Kampe comes down on this.
Kampe now has the remnants of a team that could have been good enough to make an NCAA Tournament run. And he needs to keep them motivated through a season whose ceiling just got dramatically lower through no fault of their own. Those kids stayed, rather than leaving at the first sign of adversity — that thing that Kampe wishes more players would do. Maybe Cumberland and Norris’s departures played a role in some of the other bench guys leaving. I’m not sure, and frankly, I don’t care to sit here and dig for reasons about why some guys decided to attend college elsewhere. That’s their decision.
But the Grizzlies should still be pretty good behind Hill-Mais and the others. Kampe anticipates bringing in some junior college guys to fill out the roster, though he couldn’t get into specifics. Oakland will not be a Horizon League pushover. The team will take a trip to Greece this summer that he hopes will help them gel as a new-look unit.
Whether the coach likes it or not, that’s just the reality of college basketball in 2019. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the coach who gets the paycheck — not the players. That means it’s on the coaches to adjust to it. Kampe has been a college coach for 42 years. He wouldn’t still be around if he wasn’t continually tweaking his process as the game evolves around him. He has to do it here too, whether he agrees with the changes or not.