Is it too early for NCAA Bracket Busters? Oakland University says no. In fact, the Golden Grizzlies are already begging to be advanced on your tournament bracket.
No need to check your calendar—it’s only December. But the Golden Grizzlies are already making a case for their third invitation to the national tournament and second in as many years.
Last year, Oakland made a quick exit, dropping a first-round decision (89-66) to Pittsburgh, but early indications point toward a possible Cinderella story this season.
So far in the 2010-2011 campaign, the Golden Grizzlies have played against four Top 25 teams and have had legitimate shots to win three. Tuesday was the fourth in Knoxville taking on the seventh-ranked Tennessee Volunteers.
Walking into an arena with so much history and tradition could have been overwhelming for the Summit League leaders, but the Golden Grizzlies proved the previous three upset attempts weren’t flukes when they defeated the Volunteers 89-82.
Tennessee was sitting with a fairly comfortable eight-point lead when Oakland used a 13-0 run late in the second half that spanned nearly five minutes to go up 81-76 with just under two minutes remaining in the game. Even after the Volunteers snapped the run, Oakland guard Larry Wright hit his third three-pointer of the game to extend the lead to 85-79 with just 37 seconds to go.
The celebration was mild when the buzzer sounded, as though the Golden Grizzlies expected to give Tennessee its first loss of the season. The Volunteers had just come off an 83-76 win over No. 3 Pitt three days earlier. It was Pitt’s first loss of the season, and an emotional letdown could be an excuse for Tennessee’s defeat.
However, looking deeper into the matchup, more credit should be given to Oakland for pulling off the impressive victory.
On November 21, Oakland played close with ninth-ranked Purdue and despite losing 82-67 trailed by only four with just over 11 minutes to go in the game. A little over two weeks later, the Golden Grizzlies came closer than expected to defeating No. 17 Illinois and held a lead well into the second half until the Illini used a 17-0 run to regain their second and final lead of the game.
Just three days later, Oakland nearly knocked off No. 8 Michigan State, losing 77-76.
For everyone outside of the Oakland University program, the recent upset and close calls are shocking and impressive. But for the defending Summit League champs, it’s expected. The Golden Grizzlies consider themselves a strong up-and-coming mid-major worthy of making noise on the big stage and have no plans of letting up.
Saturday they will go for their second upset of the season against Michigan and will then have one more chance to improve their résumé against No. 2 Ohio State before entering conference play.
With solid play through the remainder of the season, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Golden Grizzlies eventually cracked the Top 25 before the end of the season.
Perhaps it would have benefitted them more if they didn’t hit their stride until tournament time. Oakland is by no means going to surprise anyone in March. But that’s just fine with them because regardless of the opponent, the Golden Grizzlies no longer consider themselves an underdog. They believe they can compete with the nation’s elite—and they’ve proven as much.