Oakland, Alabama A&M survived difficult seasons to get into NCAA's opening round

Updated: March 14, 2005, 9:05 PM ET
Associated Press

DAYTON, Ohio -- As an NCAA moderator introduced Oakland coach Greg Kampe on Monday night, he mentioned the Grizzlies' 12-18 record.

"You really had to bring that up, didn't you?" Kampe scolded in mock disgust. "Couldn't you have said 18-12?"

The Grizzlies and Alabama A&M (18-13) will meet Tuesday night in the play-in game at the University of Dayton after weathering seasons filled with adversity.

Oakland opened its eighth season in Division I 0-7, losing by an average of 13 points a game. The opponents: Illinois, Marquette, Xavier, Missouri, Texas A&M, Kansas State and Saint Louis.

"We understand our record is not what some people think it should be. We make no apologies," Kampe said. "Our schedule was ranked No. 1 by the Sagarin ratings at the end of the non-conference. I wouldn't do that again, but it definitely prepared us to get here."

The Grizzlies regrouped to win their last five games, winning the Mid-Continent Conference tournament title by pulling off three upsets on consecutive days by a total of seven points to grab their first NCAA tournament bid. It took Pierre Dukes' 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left for Oakland to upset top-seeded Oral Roberts 61-60 in the final.

That shot extended the streak to four years in a row that a team with a losing record has made it into the NCAA field.

Asked what the 0-7 start says about Oakland's players, Alabama A&M forward Joe Martin said, "They're tough. They didn't get down on themselves. They kept playing and they found a way."

A&M's problems weren't on the court. They won the Southwestern Athletic Conference's regular-season title and then rolled to the conference's tournament championship to also make their first trip to the NCAA tournament.

Before the season started, coach Vann Pettaway called his team together to tell them that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. His doctors suggested he leave the team to receive treatment but he returned for what has become a magical ride.

"Basketball has been good medicine for me," he said. "They (the doctors) told me to take the year off, but there's no way I could have made it without basketball."

The best medicine he could have received this season was working with his players.

"When I was first diagnosed, everything fell apart. I was through," Pettaway said. "I heard the word cancer and the first thing I thought of was death."

Pettaway will complete radiation treatments when this memorable season ends.

Accustomed to learning X's and O's, his players picked up a larger lesson in toughness from him.

"It motivated us," Bulldogs star guard Obie Trotter said of his coach's struggle. "That's the type of person he is. He never gave up."

Pettaway is 384-181 in 19 seasons at the 6,000-student school in Normal, Ala., guiding the transition from Division II to Division I in 1999.

Kampe has spent 21 years at Oakland, a campus of 16,500 students in Rochester, Mich., going 348-254 while also leading the move up to Division I.

After all those years on the sidelines, both coaches are enjoying finally making it into the tournament. Neither is worrying about what happens next -- win and receive the dubious honor of playing top-seeded North Carolina in its home state on Friday.

Their players refuse to look at the play-in game as an overlooked bout on the undercard.

"It's still the only college game that's being played tomorrow night," Oakland's Cortney Scott said. "I consider it an NCAA tournament game. And we need to win it to continue on."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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