What a brand-enhancement opportunity for Oral Roberts: as a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s East region, the Summit League champion Golden Eagles have scored a Thursday date with Duke in Orlando, Florida.
Because CBS was connected to a Mabee Center watch party, the network provided a live-look reaction when it was revealed that ORU is matched with the fifth-seeded Blue Devils.
“I’m ready to rock,” Golden Eagle guard Issac McBride said. “Let’s dance, baby.”
Since the early ’90s, the Duke brand has been college basketball’s most prominent.
“When you get somebody like Duke,” ORU athletic director Tim Johnson said, “and the opportunity to have all of the eyes in the country watching that game — with what we’ve already done in the past — we’re going to have a huge opportunity here. Not just for the athletic department, but for the school overall.”
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The combination of this season’s perfect record in conference play, 2021 March Madness conquests of Ohio State and Florida, and now a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years — it solidifies ORU’s three-year status as the top college basketball school in the Tulsa market.
Before ORU’s Cinderella run two years ago, it had been since March 9, 1980 — the day before TU hired Nolan Richardson — that ORU’s program clearly was No. 1 locally.
In its last 73 games, ORU is 56-17 with two NCAA Tournament appearances.
In its last 73 games, Tulsa is 20-53.
“Elevators don’t get to the penthouse immediately,” said Paul Mills, who before taking the ORU job in 2017 had been a 14-year assistant at Baylor. “I knew that there were levels to this, and it would take a little bit of time.
“But to go from eight Division I wins my first year to now being able to get 30 wins this year — that’s a heck of a leap.”
During the ’70s, ORU by far was Tulsa’s most compelling college program. The Mabee Center was a way-ahead-of-its-time venue and in 1974 ORU nearly advanced to the Final Four.
During the ’90s, Bill Self had interesting, winning ORU teams at the same time that TU was a regular in the NCAA Tournament. When Scott Sutton took ORU to the NCAA in 2006, 2007 and 2008, TU still was competitive and had crowds of 5,000. There really wasn’t much separation between the local rivals.
There was the expectation for several years that the Tulsa program would be restored at an NCAA Tournament level, but since 2003 there have been only two NCAA appearances and no NCAA victories.
It’s now been 20 whole years since the Golden Hurricane recorded an NCAA Tournament victory. It’s been sobering for the Tulsa fans who sat ringside for all that transpired in 1994-2003.
In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, last week, after the Golden Eagles blasted North Dakota State in the Summit League tournament finale, coaches, players and various other university personnel commemorated ORU’s 30-4 season and league title by cutting down the nets.
As Johnson got his turn to cut and keep a strand of the net, he reflected on the six-year process of building a dynamic program.
“Part of what makes this so rewarding is that there were people who said it couldn’t be done,” said Johnson, who was ORU’s deputy athletic director when Mills was hired and succeeded Mike Carter as athletic director in 2021.
“People would say, ‘ORU basketball is past its prime,’ ” Johnson continued. “To get to the point where you’re at the top, and it looks like you’re going to be a program that’ll stay good — it’s extremely rewarding.”
Comparing the 2022-23 season of ORU and Tulsa, there was a massive difference in achievement and box-office results. While ORU was 21-0 against Summit League competition this season, TU staggered to the finish line at 5-25 overall.
As frustrated TU officials search for solutions to fan-base apathy, ORU is in a healthy, happy place. Several hundred fans attended the Sunday watch party and watched the CBS telecast on the giant video board that hovers over the midcourt logo.
This current ORU-TU dynamic isn’t permanent. Mills won’t be at ORU forever, just like Self wasn’t at ORU forever. At some point, surely, TU will recover from this agonizingly lengthy run of mediocrity. This season, the Golden Hurricane was well below mediocre.
Now that TU coach Eric Konkol has experienced the horrors of a 25-loss debut, his rebuild presumably is shifted to a more serious mode. While TU hasn’t had a truly special team in two decades, all droughts eventually end. In 1982, Richardson took TU to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 27 years.
Ideally, the ORU and TU programs eventually will be simultaneously entertaining and successful. Remember when Mayor’s Cup games were played before sellout crowds?
This moment belongs to Mills, to Johnson, to Max Abmas and his teammates, and to the energized ORU fans. There aren’t many Division I small-school programs that match ORU’s home-game attendance and atmosphere.
With regard to recent overall success, recent NCAA Tournament appearances and victories, marketing momentum, attendance, the recent Mabee Center renovation, the development of the remarkable new Mike Carter Center practice facility and overall positive energy, Oral Roberts University since 2021 has been the No. 1 college basketball school in Tulsa.