ROCHESTER, Mich. -- Maybe it's "little man syndrome" that drives Kahlil Felder to prove he's the best player on the court any time he steps onto it -- pregame warmups included.
Oakland University's point guard may not have begun the season as the favorite to win the Horizon League's player of the year award, but he makes his case night after night as he leads a team that was picked to finish seventh in the conference to contention for the regular-season title. Entering play this weekend -- one last showdown with preseason favorite Keifer Skyes of Green Bay -- he leads the country in assists per game (7.8) while holding steady at third in the league in scoring at 17.4 points per game, one behind Skyes. To those totals he adds 5.6 rebounds per game and 60 steals.
Oh, and he's all of 5 foot, 9 inches, too. And just a sophomore logging nearly 40 minutes per game on average.
"He definitely has little man syndrome," senior forward Ralph Hill said. "He's definitely trying to compete with everybody out there. But I think it actually helps him out."
Longtime Oakland coach Greg Kampe knew a good thing when he saw it, and he saw it early on. Felder was just a sophomore at Detroit Pershing, where he later earned Detroit Public School league MVP honors and was named to the Detroit Free Press' Dream Team. By the time Felder was an upperclassmen, Kampe had made up his mind that he'd found his future point guard and threw away the safety net to make his point.
"His junior year we wanted a point guard and didn't recruit one," Kampe said. "We wanted to show him, ‘You're our guy.' We told him you come here and we'll start you from day one. And he has and he's turned out to be quite special."
Felder had other options, but chose to play for Oakland, a growing university in suburban Detroit, because it was close to home. Right from the start, Kampe gave Felder the keys and told him to run the offense. Now he's out there calling his own plays. The choice seems to have worked out well for all involved. In his first year he earned Horizon League freshman of the year honors and recorded the first triple-double in OU history. He scored in double figures in 18 games and dished out double figures assists in a league-high six games.
With his athleticism, he makes incredible plays more often than he doesn't, as well. Whether it's crossing up defenders, turning the corner for a layup down the baseline, zig-zagging through the defense only to kick the ball back out for a three or just showing off some incredible hops to grab a rebound from a player a foot taller than him, Felder is involved in seemingly all the action.
"If I don't make a play or if I don't do something right, I feel like our team won't be successful," Felder said, estimating the balls is in his hands 95 percent of the time. "For us to be successful I have to make that play or make that statement on defense."
He's pretty fun to watch before the game, too, as he showed off in a shootaround the day after the NBA Slam Dunk contest:
And then he does something like this, just leaving defenders a heap on the floor en route to the basket like he did Wednesday against Youngstown State, racking up SportsCenter's top play for the effort.
Asked to talk about what makes Felder's game so strong, Kampe went straight to a football metaphor.
"He's like a tail back," Kampe said. "You throw him on a pitch sweep and he just runs everybody over. You give him that ball, he changes directions as good as anybody I've ever seen. He changes speeds and he changes directions. I mean, he made that kid fall down tonight."
Felder and Skyes meet this afternoon in Green Bay. Although the Horizon League regular season title has been settled -- Valparaiso edged Cleveland State on Friday to shore it up -- the Phoenix and Golden Grizzlies still have something to settle. Felder and Sykes may not make the matchup personal -- they're actually friends off the court, Felder said -- the outcome could go a long way toward deciding just who the league's player of the year will be.