Billy Donlon is not a big Twitter guy. There just isn’t always enough space to make sure you get your point across, he said. But on Sunday night, the Kansas City coach was tempted to tweet. Oral Roberts had just knocked off Florida to make the Sweet 16, and there was something Donlon wanted to highlight about the fellow Summit League squad.
He wanted to remind people that the Golden Eagles had finished fourth in the conference.
“For me, I did not say that as a knock on them,” he said. “I really want to promote our league. They finished fourth, they could’ve won the regular season, but it shows the strength of our league.”
The Golden Eagles’ historic jaunt to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend as a No. 15 seed has certainly been a boon for the Summit.
Donlon talked about the recruiting benefits that ORU’s continued exposure could have for the league, benefits that he said will rightfully, and obviously, be reaped most by the Golden Eagles. South Dakota coach Todd Lee talked about recognition the run brings to the league, and the financial boost to the conference as a team piles up multiple wins in the Big Dance.
Donlon and Lee, however, have more in common then simply coaching teams in the same league as the program from Tulsa that’s suddenly a household name. They both did something this season that Ohio State and Florida could not: beat the Golden Eagles.
Lee’s Coyotes — who finished second in the regular season — beat ORU at its own game in late February in their lone meeting, outpacing the Golden Eagles in an 86-84 win that saw USD redshirt sophomore guard A.J. Plitzuweit (37 points, 8-11 3FG) outduel Max Abmas (36 points, 7-9 3FG). Donlon’s defensively-stout Roos split a trip to Tulsa in late January, holding the Golden Eagles to their two slowest-paced games of the year and, somewhat surprisingly, winning the higher scoring affair.
For Lee, the run ORU has gone on may be the beginning of something bigger at the mid-major level. Led by Obanor, who is a junior, the majority of the Golden Eagles’ postseason rotation has spent multiple years in Paul Mills’ program. That could be an advantage for certain mid-majors as high major rosters remain particularly fluid.
“I don’t think this will be a one time deal,” the Coyotes’ coach said. “I think it will be more and more prevalent because with all the transfers and guys leaving early for the NBA, if you can have players who are really good sticking in your program and they get older, I think we’ll see this more and more.”
For now it’s the Golden Eagles grabbing headlines and, in separate interviews, the two Summit coaches talked about what makes ORU so dangerous, and ways to try and deal with a team that has knit itself into the fabric of March.
On Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor:
Abmas (27.5 PPG, 5.0 APG) and Obanor (29.0 PPG, 11.0 RPG) have been on a tear in the wins over Ohio State and Florida, with each playing every minute in both games— including the extra five minutes against the Buckeyes.
Donlon: “Has there been a point guard that has played better than Max [Abmas] this tournament? He’s playing at a such a high level...they have a couple of high, high level players [in Abmas and Kevin Obanor]. I don’t care if you’re talking ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, those guys can play anywhere.”
Lee: “[Obanor] has been a great, great player in our league for three years...Abmas is really good coming of the ball screen and Obanor is a very good three point shooter. If you switch it they’ll roll him to the basket and post him up and then you have to deal with that.”
On the Golden Eagles’ supporting players:
Paul Mills has tightened his rotation to primarily include Francis Lacis, Carlos Jurgens, Kareem Thompson and DJ Weaver, in addition to Abmas and Obanor. The quartet have had big moments, both offensively and defensively, throughout ORU’s run first in the Summit League Tournament, and then last weekend in Indianapolis.
Donlon: “Their role guys are playing A+ at their roles, and when we talk to our team in the offseason, I’m going to talk about the great quote, ‘be great at your role and you’ll give your team a chance to win.’ Those guys outside of Max and Kevin, and they have been elite at their roles and they’re every bit as important as Max and Kevin in being in the Sweet 16 and playing for an Elite Eight.”
Lee: “They have guys that can space the floor and do a really good job of spreading you out, and have a couple guys that can really drive it.”
On the challenges posed in preparing for ORU’s ball screen offense:
Lee: “The first thing you’ve got to figure out is what you’re going to do with ball screen action; that’s the main action the run with Abmas and a lot of time it’s Obanor involved with that. With the two best players involved with that, I will say this, they’ve seen every coverage in the world, because everybody has tried everything and Coach Mills is a really good coach. You don’t want to give a good player or good coach a steady diet of the same coverage. They’ve seen it all and Coach Mills has done a really good job putting those guys in a position to have success.”
Donlon: “In the half court you have to make hard choices. You have to decide how you’re going to guard the 1-5 ball screen...if you switch it, you’ve seen Max go by the bigger guys from Florida and Ohio State and get to the rim or make a three, and you’ve also seen them post Kevin and he’s done a great job. You have to figure out how to solve that problem and there’s not an easy solution. We had the personnel to do some different things. With Max, we almost trapped without it being a trap. We wanted to put great pressure on a pass when he picked it up. Paul and his staff have done an amazing job on both ends.”
On where the Golden Eagles have improved throughout the season:
Lee: “I think the biggest difference in watching them in the league tournament, they’ve really improved defensively. I thought they played really good defense in our league tournament...that’s why they were able to win the games they were. They had to beat a really good offensive team in South Dakota State, and then when you play North Dakota State you really have to guard because they really guard you, so they’ve improved defensively.”
On the threat posed by ORU in transition:
Donlon: “The number one thing is you need to eliminate their transition game because they’re elite in transition and that starts with Max’s ability to shoot from deep. You need to pick him up just on the other side of half court, so the floor is more open for their offense. There’s a couple ways teams can decide to do that, you can crash the backboard and make it hard for them to get guys to leak out because they have to block you out. You can do what we did and not send anyone to the offensive glass so you always have guys back.”
On dealing with the Golden Eagles ability to make shots from anywhere:
Donlon: “I thought Florida did a really great job of this but still didn’t win. Max and Kevin and their guys can make a lot of shake your hand shots. With Max it’s almost Steph Curry-esque and I don’t use that compliment loosely. I don’t care who you are, Florida or Gonzaga, it can take a toll on you. I think it’s very important that you talk with your guys about staying in attack mode on offense. Don’t allow their shake your hand shots to affect you emotionally, especially on offense.”
Oral Roberts plays Arkansas in the Sweet 16 at 7:25 PM ET on Saturday.