Oral Roberts won’t have the luxury of surprising anyone after playing Cinderella two years ago, but the Golden Eagles have the formula for a deep tournament run.
It seems like just about everything about college basketball has changed in the past two years. NCAA tournament games were played in nearly empty arenas as a precaution due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Jay Wright were still coaching. More than 3,000 players have entered the transfer portal in that time, while Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals have taken over roster management and recruitment.
But at Oral Roberts, things are strikingly similar. The Golden Eagles were March favorites in 2021, going into the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed behind the heroics of junior point guard Max Abmas, who scored 29 points in the first round against Ohio State and 26 against. Florida. Now, Abmas leads again as Oral Roberts prepares for another shot at March glory.
After falling short of suddenly high expectations in 2022, head coach Paul Mills and a returning core of two assistant coaches, three starters and five total players from that ’21 team set out to turn things around and return the Golden Eagles to foreground of March. . The result? A team that is even better than the Sweet 16 team two years ago. Winners of 17 straight and 27 of their last 28 games, Abmas and the Golden Eagles won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around, but they’ve built perhaps the best mid-major team in the country thanks to continuity, star power and a key assist from the tallest player in college basketball.
Back in 2021, the Golden Eagles were No. 15 for a reason: They didn’t win a single Division I nonconference game and finished fourth in the Summit League regular season, largely due to a porous defense that ranked outside the top 200 in its adjusted efficiency metric KenPom. They were solid on that end of the floor when it mattered in March, but those defensive woes caught up with them the following season.
After dealing with a lot of offseason fanfare due to last year and Abmas’ return from testing the NBA waters, ORU’s defense has essentially regressed, ranking 290th, according to KenPom. The result: a third-place finish in the Summit League and a 20-point loss in the championship game semifinals.
“The road back to March Madness is not easy,” says Abmas. “That’s a big thing we learned last year. It wasn’t a bad season, but it was bad if you look at what we expected to do.”
Mills, who described his previous teams’ defensive numbers as “pretty horrendous,” knew he had to find a defensive solution to help match his team’s offensive firepower. The top priority? Go to the transfer portal and find size after starting a 6’7″ center in 2022.
“If you were seven [feet tall]we talked every day,” says Mills.
In their late-season meeting, guard Issac McBride threw Mills to a potential solution: capable 7’5″ big Connor Vanover, who had seen his minutes at Arkansas evaporate late in the season and was a former teammate of McBride at the high school Within 30 seconds of the meeting starting, McBride asked Mills if he would be interested if Vanover decided to enter the transport gate.
“I said, ‘If Connor Vanover recovers [us], he’s perfect,’” Mills recalled. “And [McBride] he said, “You don’t have to do anything.”
Sure enough, Vanover entered the transfer window and Mills was the first coach to call him. He began pitching, bringing Vanover to Oral Roberts, making several trips from Tulsa to Fayetteville, Ark., to visit Vanover for lunch.
“I wore them on the streets,” says Mills. “We used to meet at Torchy’s Tacos in Fayetteville, and he said, ‘Can we meet somewhere else?’ That’s how often I’ve been there.”
Vanover, who is tied with Western Kentucky’s Jamarion Sharp as the tallest player in Division I, is perhaps the most unique player in college basketball. He’s extremely skilled on the offensive end, taking nearly half of his shots this season from three-point range and hitting 33 percent. Defensively, he is one of the most prolific shot-blockers in the country, ranking in the top five nationally in block percentage. His style of play doesn’t fit everywhere, but it certainly fits Oral Roberts, and his addition has been a huge reason for the team’s vast improvement.
Abmas’ decision to return to Oral Roberts helped the Golden Eagles make another tournament run.
Joshua Bickel/USA TODAY Sports
“Some places would rather have a more traditional suspension, and it just flows better with the way they play,” Vanover says. “At Oral Roberts, with me, Max [Abmas] and our whole lineup, I kind of fit our style. Max is one of the best three-point shooters in the country. I’m a big guy who can roll to the rim and also get out and shoot on the perimeter, which wreaks havoc on defense.”
With their shot-blocking presence, Mills went to work all summer trying to improve the team’s defense. The coach who two years ago talked about giving his players a mandate to take 20,000 shots in the first six weeks of the fall has had his veteran team spend more time focusing on offseason stops, something it rarely did in years past. . The primary concern with drilling defenses in the summer is maintaining focus — “That’s the last thing they want to do,” Mills says. But with a bigger team and advice from mentors like former Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt and North Texas’ Grant McCasland, Mills got the buy-in necessary to take steps toward that goal.
It resulted in one of the most improved defensive units in the nation. Oral Roberts rose from No. 290 to No. 105 nationally in defensive efficiency per KenPom, bolstered by a top-50 two-point defense thanks to Vanover’s ability to protect the rim. The offense has also made strides because of him, with the team shooting 56.8 percent on two-point field goals, a top 10 in the country.
Of course, the biggest reason for Oral Roberts’ renewed relevance is the presence of Abmas, who had opportunities to leave after each of the last two seasons but instead chose to return. His star teammate Kevin Obanor transferred in 2021 to Texas Tech, where he currently leads the Red Raiders in scoring. Pro opportunities aside, Abmas could have played for any school in the country had he walked into the gate himself. He also turned down more money given that the rate for NIL deals for many top signings was in six figures.
“I think the end goal is, it’s not just to get all that NIL money, the end goal for me is to play professionally in the NBA for as long as I can play,” Abmas says. “I just understand that and I understand that the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side and I understand what I had here at Oral Roberts [and the] relationship that I have built over the last few years.”
That’s not to say big schools haven’t tried to crack Abmas. “We have DM. He has taken a screenshot [his] DM. We’re not naive,” says Mills.
But Abmas was unfazed by the big-name interest, especially given his strong relationship with Mills. One of the few Division I coaches to recruit him out of high school, Mills helped Abmas improve as a passer and defender for his potential professional future. Abmas is also enrolled in a premed program and is set to graduate this spring with a GPA between 3.7 and 3.8. He scored his 2,500th career point last weekend and ranks in the top five scorers in program history.
“He only cares about the right things. He has wonderful parents. his head is screwed on tight. It avoids distractions,” says Mills. “I love the child.”
Even with a 29-4 record heading into Tuesday’s championship game against North Dakota State, Oral Roberts faced the same must-win situation it did two years ago when it entered the title game at 15-10. Despite playing a top-15 non-conference schedule, ORU’s lack of Quad 1 wins likely would have kept it out of the Dance. Mills had already prepared his speech, stressing the team’s lack of opportunities due to the resource gap between majors and smaller schools like Oral Roberts.
Fortunately, Oral Roberts left no doubt. In perhaps the most dominant performance by any team this Championship Week, the Golden Eagles took a 51–20 halftime lead and ran out 92–58 winners, setting off a somewhat subdued celebration from a team that waited to get here.
“We got to experience what it was like to play at the highest level and win games in the tournament,” says Abmas. “We understand what it takes.”
Two years ago, Ohio State’s CJ Walker said moments after the incredible upset that they had taken Oral Roberts for granted. This time, Oral Roberts won’t have the luxury of surprising anyone, but it may not matter. The Golden Eagles have the formula for a deep tournament run, perhaps even farther than the one that shocked the world two years ago.