Just three weeks ago, Oakland University’s star point guard Kahlil “Kay” Felder sat in the O’rena sobbing after a crushing 90-73 loss to Northern Kentucky.
It was the Golden Grizzlies’ third Horizon League loss in six games. This wasn’t how Oakland’s season was supposed to go.
In an emotional post-game locker room, questions were raised about leadership.
The reticent Felder told his teammates, “I am still learning. I want to be a leader, but I need help. Nobody wants to help me. I am confused. Literally, I am confused every day,” according to Oakland staff writer Terry Foster.
It was the low point for Oakland’s season.
Since that moment of anguish, Oakland has won eight of nine games including seven straight on the road. Monday night, Oakland (19-9 overall) took possession of second place in the Horizon League with a road win at Wright State. Its only loss in that stretch came to a Milwaukee team that had nonconference victories over Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Felder’s still scoring at an elite pace (24.4 points per game) but his passing on the court has risen to another level as he’s focused less on personal scoring and more on distributing the ball to teammates. Over those nine games, he’s averaging just under 11 assists per game.
He’s learned to lean on his teammates more, relying on them to be in their spots for him to set them up. At 9.2 assists per game for the season, he leads the NCAA Division I by a margin of 1.2 assists, and his total of 14 games with a combination of 15 points and 10 assists dwarfs the competition.
Meanwhile, Nick Daniels — a redshirt sophomore guard who was a part of the same recruiting class as Felder — has emerged as the team’s emotional leader while Felder leads on the floor.
Daniels said Felder has been overwhelmingly positive since the team’s loss at the hands of NKU.
“Kay’s just trying to win. He’s the captain; he’s the leader of the team. He knows what he’s capable of doing. We know what he’s capable of doing. He’s just trying to help his teammates out and get them some confidence. He’s being more of a team player than doing it all himself,” Daniels said.
Meanwhile, Oakland head coach Greg Kampe said that much of the reason the team has been so successful the past few weeks is that they’re finally having fun.
The increased attention on Felder has been a strain on the team. Last week he was named the NCAA Player of the Week after posting 35 assists in three conference games.
Kampe says the spotlight on Kay has been taxing but he’s weathering it well.
“It hasn’t been easy, especially with all the attention. All of the outside people that are trying to get involved, I learn something new every day about stuff that’s going on behind the scenes with Kay. I think he’s very grounded but it can be very overwhelming. But we’re there to support him and protect him,” Kampe said.
Felder has become a staple on ESPN’s SportsCenter. He’s far better known for his highlight plays, but his personality shined through three weeks ago when he asked his teammates for help.
As Daniels said, “It’s the bottom of the seventh, eighth, ninth inning now and it’s time for all of us to step up and help each other. Kay has been the one pushing us to the next level.”
Above: Kahlil Felder has changed his game this season to become more of an assist leader rather than scorer in leading the Golden Grizzlies to second in the Horizon League (Courtesy Nowshin Chowdhury/Oakland University)