While conference rivalries typically begin after teams face each other on the court of field of play, the one that has developed between the University of Detroit Mercy and Oakland University seems to be an exception.
Although the two schools have faced each other in past athletic endeavors, it was when Oakland officially joined the Horizon League last summer that a genuine rivalry seemed to be born.
Year one of the rivalry has primarily gone Oakland’s way, as the men’s and women’s basketball teams combined to go 4-0 against the Titans. The Golden Grizzlies completed the regular-season sweep at the O’Rena with a 97-78 victory by the women’s team Feb. 13, and an 83-82 overtime win by the men’s team Feb. 14, in a game that aired nationally as part of “rivalry week” on ESPNU.
The men’s and women’s basketball teams also both came away with victories Jan. 11 at Calihan Hall in Detroit.
While the rivalry may have been already established before the teams ever even faced each other in Horizon League play, the response the games received might have gone a long way toward helping establish it as one that could be around for many years to come.
Aside from a fair amount of media exposure, fans of both schools did their part to help create a fun atmosphere and embrace the rivalry. When the men’s teams played Jan. 11, it was the largest reported crowd at Calihan Hall since 2002. When the two teams faced off again Feb. 14, it was played in front of what was the largest reported crowd in the history of the O’Rena (4,065).
The atmosphere inside the O’Rena didn’t escape the attention of Oakland coach Greg Kampe.
“We played Michigan State, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Missouri, Marquette in this building,” he said. “It’s never been as full, it’s never been as loud, and there’s never been the excitement on campus there was this week.”
“I think that was one of the best games I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here,” said Oakland guard Travis Bader, who is the NCAA Division I all-time leader in 3-point shots made. “We beat Tennessee here. This was the craziest atmosphere I’ve ever been in. You could tell all week long — people were talking about this game. We really appreciate everybody coming out.”
While he may not have been pleased with the result, the potential for a healthy rivalry that could last for years to come didn’t seem to be lost on Detroit coach Ray McCallum.
“The thing I like is there was 7,000 in our building,” he said. “We’ve had nationally ranked teams come in — didn’t get that. Great interest in the area; it’s great for our guys to play in good environments.”
While any win is likely to be considered a good one from a coach’s standpoint, it may be hard not to notice that there has been something different about playing Detroit.
“It’s a great atmosphere from a crowd standpoint,” said Oakland women’s basketball coach Jeff Tungate. “People are interested in it. It gets a lot of media exposure, it gets a lot of fans to come out and watch it. I downplay it a little bit. My expectation level of our players is the same, no matter who we’re playing. But I think from a fan standpoint, from an alumni standpoint, from a community standpoint, from a media standpoint, it’s great to be able to play a school this close.”
While Oakland did sweep the regular-season series, there is a possibility that the teams could see each other again relatively soon, as the men’s and women’s Horizon League Championship is scheduled to be played in March. Stay tuned.
Call Sports Writer Mark Vest at (586) 279-1112. Follow him on Twitter @CandGMark.