As part of his "Big Dance" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Oakland head coach Greg Kampe as his Golden Grizzlies will make their second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. Coach Kampe's Golden Grizzlies dominated the Summit League, losing just one of their 18 league games to go along with a solid showing in their non-conference slate. Oakland drew a 13-seed with Texas being their first round matchup this week.
Jon Teitel: In the past two weeks Keith Benson was named Summit League Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and conference tournament MVP. Where does he rank among the best players in the country?
Greg Kampe: I think he should be right there in the top handful of players. I was very disappointed when he did not make the Naismith mid-season Top 30 list, as there are not 30 players in the country who are better than Keith.
JT: You won the NCAA Tournament opening round game in 2005 before losing to eventual national champion North Carolina, and last year you lost to Pittsburgh in the first round. What has your prior tourney experience taught you about what it take to succeed in postseason play?
GK: We had a five-pont lead with about seven minutes to go last March but Gary McGhee split Derick Nelson's head open with an elbow, and before we knew it we were down by 15. It was a disappointing way to lose, and we used it last summer as motivation to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
JT: In a December game at Illinois your team played the first seven minutes before discovering that you were using a women's basketball. When could your players first tell that the ball was smaller than normal, and how the hell did that even happen?
GK: Both teams had complained about the ball, but mostly that it did not have enough air in it. I was mad about switching balls because we were ahead at the time! Travis Bader shoots over 45% from the three-point line this year, and when he shot an air ball, I called him over because I had never seen him do that before. I was yelling at him while he was trying to explain to me that there was something wrong with the ball.
JT: You have had a win (Tennessee) and a close loss (Michigan State) this year against some great teams outside your conference, and got blown out in several other games (West Virginia, Michigan and Ohio State). How do you think that this very difficult schedule will serve you well next week?
GK: We have been in hostile environments and seen everything there is to see. We know what the best teams play like, so we will not be in awe of anyone.
JT: You were named Summit League Coach of the Year in each of the past two seasons. What did it mean to you to win such outstanding honors?
GK: We do not give out any individual awards because everything is about the team, so it would be hypocritical of me to comment on that. The reason I was rewarded is because I had a very good team that won a lot of games.
JT: Your team went 17-1 in conference play for the second straight year, and won each of its conference tournament games this month by double-digits. Do you feel like your team is playing its best basketball of the season right now?
GK: Yes I do. We had a 20-point lead during each of our three tournament games, which impressed me a lot.
JT: Your former player Brian Gregory (coach at Dayton) has won 20+ games for the fourth straight season. What was he like as a player, and what makes him such a great coach?
GK: Even as a player I knew that Brian would be an outstanding coach because he was interested in the decision making and the reasons why we did everything we did. I remember when Coach Jud Heathcote called me for a recommendation to hire Brian as a graduate assistant, and I told him that he would be getting an excellent coach if he did.
JT: You are the only athlete in MAC history to earn First Team All-Academic honors in both football and basketball. Which sport did you enjoy the most, and how much importance do you place on academics?
GK: Academics are extremely important; you have to create an atmosphere where your team believes that, and our kids have to take their academics seriously. Football is the greatest sport in the world on game day...but the other six days of the week it sucks! I chose to coach basketball because the weather in OH was not very good, and I have never seen snow on the basketball court. I also like coaching 12 players instead of 100. I did not know my own head football coach very well until my junior year, and I wanted to have more of an impact on my players as a head coach.
JT: Your father Kurt was a guard on Michigan's 1947 national championship football team. What did he teach you about what it takes to win a national championship?
GK: He also coached high school football so I grew up in a coaching environment. The biggest things he taught me were to treat your players openly and honestly, as well as to work your tail off.
JT: I know you are not a fortune-teller, but what seed do you think you will get and what kind of team do you think you would match up well against?
GK: We want a team that will go up and down as that is our own style of play. I am hoping for a 12 seed, and would be happy to take an 11 or 13...but if we get a 14 then I will cry!