Friday, December 15, 2017

Familiar foes in No. 2 Michigan State and Oakland collide for the first time ever in Downtown Detroit

Photo Credit: Michigan State Athletics

By: Jeremy Rosenberg

The Oakland Golden Grizzlies (6-4) and No. 2 ranked Michigan State Spartans (9-1) will battle this Saturday in their familiar December time frame, but this time the setting will be different. No longer meeting in Oakland’s backyard at the Palace of Auburn Hills, this spirited annual rivalry moves to swanky new digs in downtown Detroit, at Little Caesars Arena.

For the MSU Spartans, this yearly tilt represents a chance for head coach Tom Izzo to remind his team that you need to get up for good mid-major competition. Year after year it seems like Oakland pushes Sparty to the brink, only to fall short in admirable defeat. It seems for Oakland head coach Greg Kampe, the December matchup with MSU is his own Sisyphean task.

For those who are not familiar, the story of Sisyphus goes like this: Once there was a Greek king named Sisyphus. Turns out Sisyphus was a pretty bad dude, he ruled his city-state with an iron fist and made a habit of angering the Greek gods. Eventually the Greek gods had a meeting and voted (even Greek gods are democratic) to condemn Sisyphus to push a boulder up a hill, forever to repeat the task for all eternity as it will roll back down every time he gets it to the top.

Kampe has engaged in no such evil deeds, and the only gods he angered are the power five basketball purists who get annoyed every time Oakland knock some so-called power team off their perch. Kampe does have a history of dong this, just not to MSU. Tom Izzo has an interesting quirk where he actually respects his opponents. Turns out that tactic helps MSU win these mid-major scraps year after year.

A battle between Kampe and Izzo is always a competition between two of college basketball’s good guys. The mutual respect these two have for their counterparts, the fawning praise they bestow on each other, it would all be a little too much if these two weren’t the genuine article. For this reason, you just can’t help but pull for Kampe to win one of these MSU matchups.

This doesn’t seem like the year, though, as Izzo has a completely loaded roster. The results on the court have been pretty clear, MSU has handled all comers except an early loss to Duke. When your only other “stumble” is a ten-point road conference victory, then you know you have a team off to a hot start. To say Oakland does not have the talent to hang with the likes of Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, and Josh Langford takes nothing away from OU. Very few teams can match MSU’s talent and depth.

Kampe’s 2017-18 version of the Golden Grizz is very much like past editions. Athletic wings, good scoring talent, a roster of overachievers and transfers getting a second chance. No one harmonizes this mix, year after year, as well as Greg Kampe. Seniors Jaylen Hayes and Kendrick Nunn can play, and will have multiple chances to showcase their talent this season. They might help Oakland keep it close for a while, but expect State to pull away and win by 15-20 points.

The French writer Albert Camus wrote of Sisyphus that one must imagine him to be happy in his toil. It is a larger allegory for facing the challenges of life, and the overall absurdity that these challenges represent. Is it absurd to keep coming at Izzo and the Spartans, year after year, only to be left short, sometimes heartbreakingly so? That is a larger question with no good answer, but I will say this: It is not difficult to imagine Greg Kampe happy with this task.

Year after year, Oakland puts a quality team on the floor, and Kampe is nothing if not a happy warrior. His teams are a reflection of his doggedness. After Saturday, when MSU has likely vanquished the Grizzlies yet again, I expect to see Kampe gearing up for next year’s fight.

He’ll keep pushing that boulder, and we will all keep admiring him for it.