TULSA, Okla. – On Saturday night, I had the chance to see one of the nation’s best-kept secrets play as Dominique Morrison scored 22 points in a 93-86 win over Summit League rival Oakland. Morrison is a four-year starter at Oral Roberts and a guy that has been all over the all-Summit teams throughout his career. And this season, he’s playing the best basketball of his career. While his per-game averages aren’t all that much better than what he posted as a junior, in league play he’s averaging a league-best 23.5 ppg while shooting 56.3% from beyond the arc.
Should I mention that ORU is currently 10-0 in the Summit League, on an 11 game win streak and currently own a 22 point win over the only team in the conference within striking distance, South Dakota State?
But there is more. ORU isn’t a one man show. In fact, they had five players named to either first- or second-team all-Summit in the preseason, including Michael Craion, the team’s third-leading scorer and leading rebounder who missed last season with an injury. Craion’s return has meant that Steven Rountree and Damion Bell-Holter, who both started last season, have split time coming off the bench this season.
I think its fair to say that it’s a luxury to rotate two preseason all-conference players as a fifth starter. And for what its worth, Roderick Pearson, ORU’s point guard, is the only starter that didn’t receive preseason honors and he’s third in the conference in assists and second in assist:to:turnover ratio.
“I think we have probably a better cast around [Morrison],” ORU head coach Scott Sutton said when I asked him what set his team apart from the rest of the Summit League. “And not to say those other teams don’t, but we have Craion and Rountree and Bell-Holter and [Warren] Niles, and all of those guys could lead us in scoring any given night. If Dominique went out, last year he did for a few weeks with a knee injury, obviously we missed him but we have other guys that can pick up the slack.”
It begs the question: when are people going to start talking about ORU?
This group is experienced, with a starting lineup made up entirely of juniors and seniors. They are balanced, as six different players have led them in scoring this season, all of whom are averaging at least 7.3 ppg. They have a core group of six players that see the majority of the minutes, but they are capable of going eight deep with a couple of young shooters coming off the bench.
But most importantly, this is a team that is currently playing their best basketball of the season. During this 11 game winning streak, Morrison has played as well as anyone in the country, averaging 24.7 ppg and 4.5 rpg while shooting 58.2% from the floor, 60.2% (35-58) from three and 88.2% from the line. Prior to that stretch, he was averaging 15.1 ppg while shooting a career-low 41.4% from the floor and 23.5% from beyond the arc.
Its not just Morrison, though. Warren Niles, who averaged 14.2 ppg as a sophomore but has struggled to find his stroke this season, has led the team in scoring in two of the past three games, including a 27 point performance against Oakland.
“I kind of went back to myself and told myself that I need to be more aggressive,” Niles said. “I’ve been trying to do other things — defense, rebounding, get assists — but I’ve been wanting to be more aggressive on the offense end.”
“We just got a lot of good players, and people don’t realize that,” Morrison said.
And while that may cause some trouble for a potential first-round opponent, the issue for ORU is going to be getting to the tournament. At this point, it looks fairly unlikely that they are going to be able to get an at-large bid. They whiffed on opportunities to notch marquee victories with competitive losses at West Virginia, Gonzaga and Oklahoma. Their best win is against a Xavier team that was playing their first game after the brawl — without Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Dez Wells — and has looked thoroughly mediocre the past month and a half.
The bigger issue, however, is a loss to UT-San Antonio in the second game of the season. Granted, ORU was a different team at that point — Craion was still working his way back into rhythm while Morrison was struggling to shoot the ball — but since their entire team was available, the selection committee probably won’t look at it that way.
Andy Glockner, the man in charge of the Bubble Watch at SI.com, wrote that ORU is a “good team, maybe with not enough juice for an at-large. That galling loss to UTSA in the first-round of the preseason NIT, when vulnerable Oklahoma State was on tap for a trip to NYC, is a killer.”
There may be a chance if they win out — which would include a road win at South Dakota State, who is 66th in the RPI — and lose to SDSU in the Summit finals, but that is a risk that Sutton probably isn’t going to want to take.
Because the Summit League is one of the best conferences that no one talks about, from both a team and individual perspective.
South Dakota State went into Seattle and knocked of Washington 92-73 and won at Atlantic Sun leader Mercer. Oakland owns a win over Tennessee at home, at Houston and at Horizon leader Valpo. There are 15 players across the country that are currently averaging more than 20 ppg and five of them — Reggie Hamilton of Oakland, Nate Wolters of SDSU, Alex Young of IUPUI, Frank Gaines of IPFW and Morrison — are in the Summit League. A sixth, Taylor Braun of North Dakota State, has averaged 20.8 ppg in Summit League play.
All it takes is one of those guys to get hot on a night where ORU isn’t shooting the ball well, and there goes the dreams of playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“We have players in this league that can play all over the country,” Hamilton said. “Wolters, Morrison, Young. Those are good players. Given the opportunity, they can shine on any other team.”
Should ORU make a run to the tournament, their solid RPI — 49th as of Thursday morning, according to ESPN — should get them a pretty good seed to the dance. Sutton is hoping for a 12 seed. Glockner currently has them as a 14 seed in his latest bracket, but that number is likely a bit low considering that, somewhere along the line, there are going to be upsets in the tournaments of the one-bid leagues.
For ORU to be able to make a run this season, they are going to have to get a favorable matchup. The Golden Eagles aren’t the biggest team in the country — Craion is listed at 6’5″ — and they struggle defensively — Kenpom has them at 164st in the country in efficiency — mostly because they struggle to put pressure on the ball; when you don’t force turnovers and allow teams with good shooters open looks at the rim, you are going to struggle.
But ORU can score. So if they match up with a team like, say, Indiana — someone without a ton of size inside or penetrators on the perimeter — they’ll have a chance. The Hoosiers are currently sitting at a four seed, so a matchup with ORU is quite possible.
Niles, to his credit, isn’t worried about the matchups.
“If we make it, I think we can [make a run],” he said.
“I want the Sweet 16.”