Our next team on the list as we look at the top 20 mid-major programs from last season might be the most interesting case as we move into 2012. Oral Roberts breezed through the Summit season, but failed to make the NCAA Tournament after Western Illinois got hot in the conference tournament.
The Golden Eagles were forced to settle for an NIT appearance that lasted just one game.
From that team, the two most valuable players are gone, including Dominique Morrison, one of the top mid-major players of last season. And the Eagles are off to the Southland Conference, a mostly sideways move, but one that sets Oral Roberts to be one of the best teams in the conference for the next several seasons.
Scott Sutton has been one of the most successful mid-major coaches, but this season's team might be one of his toughest jobs yet. The offensive threat of Morrison is gone; so too is the solid defense of Michael Craion, who finished as the top defender on the team with a DEF100 of 13.42.
The inside duo also put up the strongest two HOOPWAR values on the squad, a total of 8 HW30 that will be missed this season.
All hope shouldn't be lost though
Junior Stephen Roundtree returns as the top value player from last season. His 1.62 HW30 should improve this year with more starting minutes and a greater role in the Eagles' rotation.
He will be joined on the inside Damen Bell-Holter, whose defensive presence should only increase in this his senior season. Bell-Holter had 24 blocks for the Eagles, and averaged almost six rebounds per game. His DEF100 of 12.61 was second on the team last year, and his leadership on that end of the court will be sorely needed for such a young team.
Sutton only used nine men last season, and one of those very sparingly. He will basically be breaking in the whole team.
Warren Niles should move into the primary scoring role vacated by Morrison, but it has yet to be seen who will be distributing him the ball after the departure of Roderick Pearson. The graduated point guard had 127 assists for Oral Roberts last year, but his value took a hit from poor 3-point shooting, and a bucket of personal fouls.
The position will likely be filled by one of the freshman on the team, although Mikey Manghum served admirably as the backup last year. The junior's defense is a little suspect and could hold him back from the starting job. Having a freshman point guard is no picnic though and D.J. Jackson and Korey Billbury may be on short leases if either wins the spot.
Another player to keep an eye on is Shawn Glover, a junior transfer from Utah. Adding a major-level talent player to the mix should help ease some of the pain from losing last year's stars.
Bottom Line: It is hard to see Oral Roberts performing well enough in the non-conference season to be considered for an at-large bid come NCAA Tournament time, so the pressure will be on during the Southland slate. Games against UTEP, Oklahoma, Missouri State, Arizona and Memphis should be good yard sticks for the Eagles' ability to crack through in conference.
If Sutton can find a rotation that works by January, he should have Oral Roberts ready to contend. The only question will be how well ORU can keep up with the pace of the Southland -- one of the fastest leagues in the country last year -- with the short bench.
Otherwise, look for the Eagles to push for the top of the conference in their first season, although winning outright and getting back to the NCAA Tournament will be a challenge, and will probably be greeted with a very low seed.