Four weeks ago Oral Roberts was sweeping Western Illinois to lock in a fourth place finish in the Summit League. Now, they’re a toast of the college basketball world after being inches away — literally — from the Elite Eight. With Max Abmas’ potential game-winning three just bouncing out, the question turns to what’s next for the Golden Eagles.
How quickly things can change.
In a vacuum, ORU’s historic tournament run would seemingly set up future success in Tulsa. The team that just took the Golden Eagles to their first Sweet 16 since 1974 could, if it wanted, make another tournament run together. Abmas, around whom any coach would be happy to build a roster, has two more years of eligibility and is playing for a coach in Paul Mills that is under 50 years old.
But mid-majors don’t live in a vacuum, a harsh reality that many fans of other programs know too well.
To start, the team may need to suddenly fend off interest in Paul Mills. The reactionary nature of the sport could have him in demand for several jobs in the Big 12, primarily Oklahoma and perhaps even Texas Tech if Chris Beard were to leave for Texas. Put aside that Mills is just 31-30 in Summit League play over his four seasons and has never finished better than fourth: the interest still make senses beyond his name being the flavor of the moment.
He has a decade and a half of experience at Baylor, being one of Scott Drew’s right hand men from the very start of the Bears rebuild. He inherited an ORU program that was trending downward, identified a severely under-appreciated prep talent in Abmas from a key Big 12 recruiting ground (the Dallas area), and successfully ran a pro-style, ball screen-heavy system to the Sweet 16. Both South Dakota coach Todd Lee and Kansas City coach Billy Donlon raved about Mills ‘coaching ability last week, particularly how he and his staff have adjusted to the opposition’s creative approaches to stopping the Abmas-Obanor ball screen problem.
All those positives could well have him headed out of Tulsa in the next few weeks. But even if the Golden Eagles hang onto the coach’s whose star is burning bright, there could well be the roster fluidity virtually every program is dealing with at the moment. It would seem a group that just went through the March one this did would want to stick together, but the headliners may have some real decisions to make.
Abmas was pretty clearly the best player on the court against the Razorbacks, wrapping up a three-game tournament run in which he averaged 26.6 points and 4.6 assists per game, while shooting 40 percent from three. The country now knows what Summit fans knew all year: he’s got unlimited range and can read defenses and score in multiple ways, as was seen from numerous drives right through the Arkansas defense on Saturday.
Does that put him on the NBA radar? One similarly-skilled player thinks so.
I ain’t gonna lie... I was about to go CRAZZZZYYYYYY !! @maxabmas A Pro— Trae Young (@TheTraeYoung) March 28, 2021
Kevin Obanor is also enticingly suited to what the NBA wants out of forwards with tremendous rebounding metrics and the all-important ability to shoot from outside (45.3 percent on 117 3PA). Could he too be tempted to cash in on the sudden national buzz and explore options up a level?
Neither player would be wrong to do so, just as Mills would not be in the wrong to pursue higher-resourced jobs that may be interested in him. And at the same time, it very well could be that the same group is intact for another run in 2021-22 — one that could benefit from the Sweet 16 exposure, as opposed be drained by it.
Just prior to the magical run, Mills got a commitment from three-star prep center Sir Isaac Herron, beating out teams like Georgia, Houston, New Mexico State and Tulsa. And with the transfer portal overflowing with players, it could well be that a number of players are interested in suiting up with Abmas and Obanor or, if nothing else, in a system that gives its players plenty of freedom on offense. To be sure, each player seems to have a green light to shoot, and the Golden Eagles have played fast and produced top 70 national offenses per KenPom the past two years.
Whatever the offseason holds for ORU, what it accomplished for itself and the Summit League is beyond question. Knocking off a 40-plus year NCAA Tournament winning drought surely will bolster the program, no matter who is in charge or wearing the jerseys. For the Summit, it was the first time a team that won a game outside the First Four since 2014 and just the third time in history — and first since Valparaiso in 1998 — that a league team has made the Sweet 16.
Like every mid-major, the Golden Eagles must now wait to see what that success will mean for next season.