When Greg Kampe brought his Oakland Golden Grizzlies into the Petersen Events Center for a non-conference game against fourth-ranked Pitt in November 2006, he did what most coaches of lower-tier Division I schools do against major-conference opponents. He "tricked it up."
Kampe instructed his players to hold the ball for the entire 35 seconds on the shot clock before shooting to force a low-scoring, low-possession game. He also uncharacteristically played zone defense as a changeup to throw Pitt out of its rhythm. He did anything to make the game competitive.
"We were up by 11 in the first half of that game," Kampe said Tuesday morning in a phone interview. "I wanted the game to end right there."
Oakland led Pitt by four at halftime, but the Panthers ended up winning, 66-55, behind 23 points from 7-foot center Aaron Gray. Oakland seniors Johnathon Jones and Derrick Nelson, two current starters for the Grizzlies, played in that game.
"I thought Pitt was a tremendous team that year," Kampe said. "We were able to control the tempo in the first half. But, if you have to look back on that game to get confidence, you might be in trouble. Is that game a big deal? No. But we will talk about it a little bit."
According to Kampe, the Grizzlies will not "trick it up" again when No. 14 seed Oakland attempts another upset bid against No. 3 seed Pitt in an NCAA first-round game Friday afternoon at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. Many lower NCAA seeds try to play that way in the tournament, and it might be tempting to play another slowdown game against Pitt, considering the success Notre Dame had against the Panthers playing that way.
But Oakland achieved a 26-8 record playing an up-tempo style, averaging 76.8 points per game, and Kampe is committed to playing that way in the tournament.
The Golden Grizzlies prepared for this game with a brutal non-conference schedule that included games against Wisconsin, Oregon, Memphis, Syracuse, Kansas and Michigan State.
Oakland lost by double digits to all six. The Memphis, Syracuse, Kansas and Michigan State games were decided by 30 points or more. Kampe said there were two reasons for those games being lopsided.
Nelson was injured last season and did not play, and Kampe said there were some early season chemistry issues. Also, Kampe wanted to see how his team stacked up against the best teams in the country, so he played the game straight up.
"We weren't a really good team early on," Kampe said. "We were trying to fit Nelson back in. We got beat by some really good teams. Our players are used to that. We play the same kind of schedule every year. This was the first year we didn't win one of those games. That bothered us.
"When we played Pitt the last time, we held the ball for 34 seconds and we played zone. This year, we didn't want to do that. We just wanted to go play. I think that's why the margins were so much bigger. The fact that we didn't win any of those games made us mad, and I think it got us better."
The Golden Grizzlies continued to play up-tempo after that stretch of non-conference games, and they were good enough to win 17 of 18 games in the Summit League. Changing his team's style of play now would do more harm than good, Kampe said.
"Listen, we're not going to win the NCAA tournament," Kampe said. "We're not dumb enough to think we're going to cut the nets down. We just want to play our tails off, have fun and see how we stack up. We like to play fast. We're not going to change that now. My players would not have a lot of respect for me if we started to change the way we play now."
Kampe said he learned a valuable coaching lesson years ago when he was teaching his wife to play golf. He is using it as a metaphor as his team prepares for its second NCAA tournament appearance this week.
"She faced a par 3 downhill, 125 yards with water all around the front of the hole," Kampe said. "She was standing on the tee, and she said, 'I can't do this.' I said, 'Yes you can.'
"We were young at the time and didn't have a lot of money. So I take an old ball out of my pocket and put it on the tee instead of the new Titleist. She said, 'Oh, you have a lot of confidence in me, huh?' I learned a lesson that day."
It remains to be seen if Kampe's team can make a hole-in-one and upset the Panthers. But what is clear is that a new Titleist is on the tee, and the Golden Grizzlies are going to grip it and rip it.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.