By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Long before this season, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett and his assistants were well aware of Oakland University’s prowess in men’s basketball. For UVA’s players, though, Oakland was more of a mystery. That’s no longer the case.
The Cavaliers watched part of Oakland’s overtime loss to No. 1 Michigan State last week. Since returning from a short holiday break, they’ve learned much more about the Horizon League team that won 97-83 at Washington on Dec. 19 and lost 86-82 at Georgia on Dec. 1.
“Coach Bennett and the coaching staff, they’ve done a great job of really letting us know what [the Golden Grizzlies] can do,” forward Anthony Gill, Virginia’s second-leading scorer and top rebounder, said after practice Tuesday afternoon.
“We’ve watched film on them the last three days. We understand that they’re a really talented team. They’ve got great players on their team, and we’ve got to be ready.”
At 6 p.m. Wednesday, in its final non-conference game, fifth-ranked Virginia (10-1) hosts Oakland (8-4) at John Paul Jones Arena. ESPNU will televise the game.
The Wahoos haven’t played since Dec. 22, when they rallied for a dramatic overtime win over California at JPJ. The Golden Grizzlies won’t be nearly as rested. They played Monday night at their home arena in Rochester, Mich., where they defeated Chicago State 101-93.
Point guard Kay Felder led Oakland with 23 points, 13 assists and a career-best eight steals in that game. Such performances are nothing new for the 5-9 junior from Detroit. Felder is trying to become the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in both points per game and assists per game.
“He’s as complete a guard as I’ve seen,” said Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford, who prepared the scouting report for this game. “He could play for anybody in the country.”
Felder currently ranks third nationally in scoring (26.6 ppg) and first in assists (9.3 per game). For good measure, he’s averaging 4.6 rebounds.
Williford said Felder combines the toughness and athleticism of former Virginia point guard Jontel Evans with the explosive scoring ability of Isaiah Thomas, a 5-9 guard who’s averaging 20.7 points for the Boston Celtics.
“So he’s got a ton of offense,” Williford said. “But he’s got the heart and the athleticism and quickness of a Bub. He runs the show. He scores. He defends.”
Gill said: “Our guards are going to have to be ready from the beginning.”
A new addition to Oakland’s lineup is 6-4 Martez Walker, who became eligible this month. Walker, a transfer from Texas, is averaging 13 points and 4.3 rebounds for head coach Greg Kampe, who’s in his 32nd season at Oakland.
“They’re tougher with him,” Williford said of Walker. “He’s a tough kid, a hard-playing kid.”
Two other Oakland starters — 6-4 Sherron Dorsey-Walker (10.1 ppg) and 6-9, 271-pound Percy Gibson (14.3 ppg) — began their college careers at Iowa State.
“It’s not your typical mid-major team,” Gill said. “They have a lot of high D-I players on that team.”
Williford said: “I wish we didn’t have to go against them right after that Cal game, but I think it’s a good game heading into ACC play, because it keeps you focused. It gets you ready for that caliber of teams we’re going to play against.”
Virginia opens ACC play Saturday at 5 p.m. against Notre Dame (9-3) at JPJ. The `Hoos have won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles, and a win over Oakland would provide a shot of momentum as they begin their pursuit of a third straight championship.
“That’s what we need to do, and we can’t overlook this Oakland team going into ACC play, because these kind of games are what’s going to help us going down the road,” Gill said.
“Oakland presents a challenge that we haven’t really faced before this year, such a dynamic scorer like the point guard, and he has the ball most of the time. We’re going to have to be on our toes, and we’re going to have to be out there fighting.”
The 6-8 Gill (14.5 ppg) is one of two fifth-year seniors on the UVA roster, along with 6-5 Malcolm Brogdon, who’s averaging a team-high 16.5 points. The Cavaliers have won nine straight since losing Nov. 16 at George Washington. In many of those victories, however, they’ve had to overcome sluggish starts.
Against Cal, for example, Virginia didn’t take its first lead until the 1:03 mark of the second half. The `Hoos have not forgotten how a poor start doomed them against Michigan State last season in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32.
“We’re trying to figure out ways right now to get on top of things and not get down early in the game,” Gill said. “It’s a process, and we’re trying to figure out that process.”
As the team’s most experienced players, Gill said, he and Brogdon are “looking for ways to try to motivate the guys, get everybody going. It starts with me and Malcolm, and we have to be ready from the beginning on both offense and defense.”
It’s important for Virginia to respect the Golden Grizzlies and not allow Felder to go wild, Willford said. “But more importantly, we’ve got to get better ourselves. We’ve got to start games better. It’s about us, ultimately.”
Wednesday night’s game will conclude the Cavaliers’ most ambitious non-conference schedule in Bennett’s seven seasons as their head coach. Already UVA has faced such opponents as GW, Ohio State, West Virginia, Villanova and Cal.
Now comes an Oakland team looking to pull off a stunning upset at JPJ. If the `Hoos stumble Wednesday night, it won’t because they’re looking past the Golden Grizzles.
“They’ve got our attention,” Williford said.