Nothing excites college basketball die-hards, casuals and bracket-fillers alike more than a good old-fashioned Cinderella story.
The 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament has not failed to deliver many a team worthy of the fabled glass slipper. However, while many are certainly worthy, one cannot mention the most coveted piece of footwear without bringing up the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles.
For all intents and purposes, the Golden Eagles were not given much love in regard to potential March Madness success. It was nothing personal, of course – Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor were not complete unknowns, but even still, no one expected those names to overtake the likes of Duane Washington Jr., E.J. Liddell or Justice Sueing of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the opening round of the South Region.
Instead of defeating the #15-seeded Golden Eagles as one would expect, it was the latter who usurped the Big Ten powerhouse, 75-72.
Oh, but the fun did not end there for the bracket buster – Oral Roberts then went on to claw their way back from a double-digit deficit and defeat the seventh-seeded Florida Gators in the next round, 81-78.
With the pair of victory thrillers, the Golden Eagles are now the second team in March Madness history to ever reach a Sweet 16 berth as a #15 seed (Florida Gulf Coast achieved the feat during the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament). Just to add sprinkles on top, the Sweet 16 berth would be the Golden Eagles’ second in program history and its first in over 40 years (1974).
Now, Oral Roberts has certainly been the underdog, and will continue to be when they face the third-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks on Mar. 27. One aspect of the team, however, might have shed its underdog label and just might be tuning up for bigger and better performances moving forward.
Why, I am talking about the offense, of course.
Now, the offensive numbers certainly spoke for themselves over the course of the regular season – Oral Roberts ranked inside the top 10 in points per game (81.8) three-point percentage (39%) and free-throw percentage (82.4%). The postseason has only continued to show ORU’s offensive prowess, as the team is currently averaging 78.0 points per game while shooting 32.3% from beyond the arc and 80.5% from the line.
The numbers certainly speak for themselves, but sometimes, seeing is believing. Let’s look at how the offense specifically operates, starting with this play during their opening game against the Buckeyes.
As expected, the Golden Eagles’ most prolific scorer in Abmas dribbled up the court. Instead of waiting for a play to develop inside the perimeter, Abmas passed the ball to Obanor, who almost simultaneously chucked it up to Kareem Thompson on the far corner. Instead of attempting a three-point shot (more on this in a minute), Thompson instead dribbled around Musa Jallow and made a jump pass over Zed Key in the low post to Deshang Weaver, who found a favorable matchup on the weak side to make the dunk.
Within the play, the ball was passed around the court three times before a shot attempt was made. This alone emphasized another strength of the Golden Eagles’ offense – they share the basketball, and while their 12.6 assists per game is not elite by any stretch (this is tied for 214th in the nation), it shows that, to counteract nastier and bigger man-to-man opponents, they have to keep the ball moving.
While sharing the basketball definitely brings more risk for turnovers, Oral Roberts has handled the ball quite effectively – their 11.3 turnovers per game are tied for 47th in the entire country. Regardless, ORU’s constant ball movement, coupled with a little bit of quick-thinking, has created more scoring opportunities. This is especially prevalent on broken plays, like this one:
Here, Abmas attempted a floater, but found too much rim. Excellent awareness from Francis Lacis on the baseline helped bat the ball outside of the congestion of bodies. While the Golden Eagles picked up a pair of hot potato passes, Abmas positioned himself on the far corner and was left open to take an open tray once the ball found him.
The Golden Eagles’ supporting cast definitely brings its perks, but at the end of the day, the well-oiled machine is patented via Abmas and Obanor. Despite the pair’s differences in height (Abmas is 6’1” while Obanor is 6’8”), they mesh so well together that the offense can play more isolated and still succeed. In fact, Obanor, even as a more traditional forward, can take the shots Abmas would usually make. In this clip, the pair connects for two downtown tree-pointers. Notice how the play is practically identical and comes on back-to-back possessions.
Remember, this is not a team that rakes in a bunch of assists.
Let’s move forward to the Florida game. It has already been established that ORU’s strength comes in their ball movement and in the Abmas-Obanor duo working together on possessions. However, if needed, the team can play renditions of ISO ball and find a seam through their utilization of sneaky speed. Exhibit A? Abmas. Despite the height discrepancy, the sophomore star found a lane in the 2-3 Florida defensive zone and steamed full speed ahead to pick up the easy floater.
If you want pure ISO ball, well, Abmas pulling a Stephen Curry and shooting from the logo definitely qualifies, right?
The complete cherry on top to ORU’s offensive prowess revolves back to the supplementary cast, and how Abmas and Obanor create more scoring chances through their placement on the court.
Here, Carlos Jurgens dribbled the ball into the offensive zone, while Abmas positioned himself on the far wing. Jurgens quickly passed it to Abmas, who then parried around two defenders in order to pass it to Weaver on the far corner. Even though Weaver made the shot, the Golden Eagles had a security blanket in place in case the basket was not made. Keep note of where Obanor is. During this play, Obanor placed himself at the baseline in order to pick up a potential rebound. This positioning not only brought defensive value, but offensive value, too, as a Gator defender was forced to give up the perimeter defense in order to guard him from making a potential layup.
Although ORU will go against the odds this once more this weekend, this might be by technicality only. This offense can shoot, adapt and overcome. They have already proved this several times already during the tournament alone.
Most importantly, the offense has proven that the Golden Eagles’ are worthy of the Cinderella slipper.