In its first four matchups with marquee teams this season, Oakland came increasingly close to pulling an upset, leading Illinois into the second half on Thursday night and then falling just one point shy two days later at Michigan State.
The Grizzlies finally got over the hump on Tuesday night at the expense of previously surging Tennessee.
Trailing the undefeated Vols by 11 at halftime and by eight with seven minutes to play, Oakland unleashed a 13-0 spurt fueled by stout defense, effective foul shooting and a flurry of second-chance points. The result was an 89-82 victory over Tennessee that should give chills to whichever unlucky No. 4 seed draws the Summit League favorites in the NCAA tournament this March.
Oakland big man Keith Benson first piqued scouts' interest when he outplayed future lottery pick Cole Aldrich last season in a 20-point, six-rebound, four-block performance at Kansas. He has proven that performance was no fluke so far this season, averaging 18.3 points and 13.7 rebounds against West Virginia, Purdue and Michigan State before posting 26 and 10 at Tennessee on Tuesday night.
An NBA-caliber big man is scary enough for a mid-major, but guards Larry Wright and Reggie Hamilton have both shown the capability of supporting Benson with backcourt scoring. Furthermore, Oakland won't be daunted in March by playing a marquee team in the NCAA tournament, having faced West Virginia, Tennessee and three of the Big Ten's best with Ohio State and Michigan still left to play.
Defeating a Tennessee team coming off a win over Pittsburgh could improve Oakland's NCAA tournament seeding, but it won't be enough to push the Grizzlies into contention for an at-large bid. As a result, it's essential that Oakland maintains this level of play in the Summit League and avoids a letdown in the conference tournament.
It would be a shame if a battle-tested team with a skilled big man and a solid backcourt doesn't get a spot on the big stage in March.