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Return to power? Mills, Abmas finally break through Dakota dominance

Eras change, and are challenged. The Summit League might be going through a change of the guard.

NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Houston Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes the schedule just smiles on the college basketball world. That was certainly the case last weekend in the Summit League as Oral Roberts made a trip to red hot South Dakota State to close its regular season.

To be sure, the Golden Eagles had long wrapped up the regular season title, dropping confetti after a win over North Dakota on Feb. 16. Nonetheless, there were still big stakes. In eking out a four-point win over a red hot Jackrabbits team prone to comebacks, ORU (27-4, 18-0) extended the longest winning streak in the country to 14 games, and became just the second team in Summit League history to finish league play unscathed.

The perfect campaign made the Golden Eagles the first school outside of the Dakotas to win an outright league title in more than a decade. And that is a big deal, even for a coaching staff and group of players that have already tasted the ultimate mid-major March fairy tale.

In a sense, a sleeping giant may have finally and fully been awakened in the Midwest.

Paul Mills and Max Abmas have done great things together. Two years ago they (and Carlos Jurgens, Kareem Thompson and DJ Weaver) emerged from a competitive Summit League to win the league’s auto bid and proceeded to dump two power conference teams out of the NCAA Tournament while coming within a whisker of the Elite Eight. In a flash, Abmas became one of the most recognizable players on the mid-major landscape.

But coming into this season, the fact was, ORU had not finished better than third in any of Mills’ five seasons at the helm of the program. Despite the 2021 NCAA Tournament run, the Golden Eagles had not fully broken the Dakota stranglehold on the conference. The last team outside of SDSU, North Dakota State and South Dakota to win an outright league title was ORU itself in 2011-12.

Dominique Morrison knows that team well.

The Golden Eagle legend was at the heart of that campaign, which saw him win Summit League Player of the Year and lead ORU to, until this season, the best record (27-7, 17-1) in its Division I existence.

“Just the whole year was a big accomplishment,” he said. “You really don’t pay attention to that at the time since you just live in the moment.”

That season was the crown jewel, at least as far as the regular season was concerned, for the Scott Sutton era in Tulsa. At that time, the Golden Eagles were — along with Valparaiso — the preeminent power in the Summit League, winning six regular season titles from 1999-2012 (the first under Barry Hinson), and making the NCAA Tournament each season between 2006-08.

That era was dotted with iconic mid-major names, from Morrison to Caleb Green to Chad Wilkerson. In short, it was a boom time for a program in an oil city.

“I can’t say enough about our coaching staff, I don’t think they get the justice they deserve,” Morrison said. “All the years they were there they had successful teams and we always produced pros. The coaches made sure we were on top of everything.”

The highs weren’t as high toward the end of Sutton’s 18-year tenure (which included the program’s brief sojourn in the Southland between 2012-14), and Mills was plucked from Baylor to take charge in 2018. By then, the conference was being dominated by SDSU and NDSU, with each school weathering the loss of head coaches and keeping course as Scott Nagy, Saul Phillips and T.J. Otzelberger left for other programs.

Eras, however, can come to an end.

Or, more realistically, eras can be challenged, and that’s what ORU has finally done. Mills built this team through the masterstroke of recruiting and developing Abmas, but also mining the transfer portal for big-time contributors from high-major (Isaac McBride, Connor Vanover) and mid-major (Patrick Mwamba) ranks. This year, it all produced an offense that is not only top 25 in the country in KenPom adjusted efficiency, but also the fourth best mark in Summit history in the KenPom era.

Vanover blocked shots at a rate seldom seen in the league (12.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.2 bpg) as he stepped out of the high-major shadow to become an elite running mate for Abmas, who was himself as excellent as ever (22.3 ppg). McBride can be as capable as Abmas of taking over games from the perimeter and the trio of players that contributed to the 2021 run — Thompson, Jurgens, Weaver — have each shone at various times this season.

That all now rolls into the age old, harsh dilemma facing ascendent mid-majors every March. ORU has a resume that is arguably worthy of a bid, but they will, in all likelihood, need to cut down the nets in Sioux Falls to put a bow on their historic season. The stage sure seems set, as the Golden Eagles won games by an average of 16.9 points per game in league play, which included victories by 50, 41 and 39 points at various times.

But, there’s no guarantee — something that anyone from the surging Jackrabbits (winners of seven straight until Saturday), to ninth-seeded North Dakota (which pushed the Golden Eagles two weeks ago) would tell you.

Morrison knows how fickle that can be. His 2011-12 team fell to Western Illinois in the conference tournament semifinals, forcing them to nervously watch the Xavier/St. Bonaventure A-10 championship game to see if their at-large hopes would be dinged by a potential Bonnie bid steal.

Ultimately, the Bonnies won that game, and the Golden Eagles were shut out of the Big Dance.

“We lost to Western Illinois, a team we hadn’t lost to in four years,” Morrison said. “We didn’t take them lightly since they were a good group, but just watching CBS that next Sunday and waiting for your name was devastating.”

Whether this version of the Golden Eagles can seal the deal in Sioux Falls or not, Mills will have a difficult task in front of him to replenish a team that will lose Abmas, Vanover and much of its supporting cast.

Still, there is nothing in the last five years — now capped by a long-awaited regular season title — that suggests he and ORU can’t build back the consistent winning the program enjoyed for so many years in the Summit. That there may be a Southern power emerging to challenge the dominant, far Northern schools is great news for fans of the league.