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Oral Roberts Plays Like Past Cinderellas

On a court plastered with “MARCH MADNESS,” about 90 seconds into his first NCAA men’s tournament game, Max Abmas pulled up from the logo without hesitation. Oral Roberts’s star entered Friday as the nation’s leading scorer at 24.2 points per game. Surely, Ohio State knew to smother him at any opportunity. Abmas’s answer was to shoot from farther back. He drilled that deep 3-pointer, pushing his team’s lead to 7-0 in a game the 15th-seeded Golden Eagles would go on to win in overtime, 75-72.

As always, it would be foolish to look back on Oral Roberts’s implausible run to the Sweet 16 and say it was easy to see it coming. FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness model estimated the Golden Eagles’ chances at 6 percent in the first round against Ohio State. Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner’s Slingshot model, which rewards teams that have a propensity to take and make 3-pointers, set the underdog’s chances at 9 percent. And when the No. 15 seed trailed by 8 in the first half Friday, Ken Pomeroy had its win probability at 2.3 percent. By any stretch, the upset was far-fetched, just as the eight previous 15-versus-2 upsets were.

But Oral Roberts’s reliance on individual star power harks back to another victorious No. 15 seed — Lehigh, led by CJ McCollum in 2012. McCollum exploded onto the scene with 30 points in a first-round upset of Duke, then parlayed that performance into a first-round draft pick the following year. Abmas is a sophomore who had only five scholarship offers in high school: from Oral Roberts, Marist, Air Force, Army and Navy. All season, he piled up points in McCollum-esque obscurity. He had already dropped 28 points against Wichita State, 33 against Oklahoma State and 20 against Oklahoma earlier in the season.

It turned out that Abmas had the perfect shooting stroke to negate even a Big Ten defense. On the season, he has taken 27.9 percent of his shots not just from behind the 3-point line, but 25 to 30 feet from the basket,1 according to CBB Analytics. And while he’s a great 3-point shooter in general — 86th in the country at 43.1 percent — his accuracy actually goes up to 45.2 percent in that 25- to 30-foot range. So yes, Ohio State followed the scouting report and made Abmas’ shots as difficult as possible — but he kept firing anyway.

Like McCollum, Abmas was well-qualified to serve as the point guard of a No. 15 seed. His KenPom offensive rating2 is 122.8, third in the country this season and 22nd since KenPom began tracking the metric for the 2003-04 season. (McCollum’s offensive rating in 2011-12 was 113.6.) And he has a more-than-capable sidekick in Kevin Obanor, who scored 30 on Friday and 28 on Sunday against Florida. Since 2000, only 21 players have scored at least 26 points twice in the first week of the NCAA Tournament; Abmas and Obanor are two of them.

Max Abmas is in good offensive company

Division I men’s basketball players with an offensive rating of at least 122.8, since 2003-04

season player team Off. rating
2018-19 Zion Williamson Duke 129.2
2004-05 Spencer Nelson Utah State 127.1
2004-05 Travis Diener Marquette 126.6
2014-15 Frank Kaminsky Wisconsin 126.2
2017-18 Jock Landale St. Mary’s 125.8
2015-16 Denzel Valentine Michigan State 125.7
2007-08 George Hill IUPUI 125.4
2006-07 Nick Fazekas Nevada 125.4
2016-17 John Collins Wake Forest 124.8
2013-14 Billy Baron Canisius 124.8
2013-14 Doug McDermott Creighton 124.4
2011-12 Damian Lillard Weber State 124.4
2015-16 John Brown High Point 123.9
2012-13 Nate Wolters South Dakota State 123.5
2011-12 Doug McDermott Creighton 123.5
2010-11 Charles Jenkins Hofstra 123.5
2015-16 Mike Daum South Dakota State 123.3
2012-13 Kelly Olynyk Gonzaga 123.3
2020-21 Ryan Davis Vermont 123.2
2020-21 Luka Garza Iowa 123.0
2005-06 Nick Fazekas Nevada 123.0
2020-21 Max Abmas Oral Roberts 122.8

Ratings for the 2020-21 season through games of March 21.

Source: KenPom.com

In hindsight, Oral Roberts stunned Ohio State and then Florida because it played the role of Cinderella perfectly. The Golden Eagles are elite in a few categories: They are the nation’s best free-throw shooting team (82.4 percent), they take 46.4 percent of their shots from 3-point range (18th nationally), they make 38.2 percent of those threes (15th nationally), and they avoid turnovers (15.4 percent of possessions, 15th nationally). Those numbers by themselves wouldn’t have been enough to take down a top-10 team, of course. But they at least made such an opportunity possible.

Because Oral Roberts limited turnovers (six, compared with Ohio State’s 16), it took more field-goal attempts (70 to 67) despite being outrebounded by 17. This was no accident: “We’re top 25 in the country at not turning it over, and Ohio State is 336th in the country at causing turnovers,” coach Paul Mills told reporters after the game. “So we knew that we were coming into a game where there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of pressure.” And because the Golden Eagles took half of their 70 shots from 3-point range, they hung around even while they suffered from a predictable decrease in accuracy against a Big Ten team. That was no accident, either: “They shoot it from everywhere,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said as his team prepared during the week. And Oral Roberts hit from everywhere, shooting 5-for-9 from 25 to 30 feet.

Oral Roberts’ high-risk strategy may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s easier said than executed. In the past 10 NCAA Tournaments, only 16 teams have attempted 35 3-pointers in a game,3 and Oral Roberts was the only one to do it as a No. 15 seed.4 This season, only one other team ranks in the nation’s top 20 in both 3-point attempt rate and 3-point make rate.5

Of the eight previous No. 15 seeds to pull off first-round upsets, only one — Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 — managed to reach the Sweet 16. In search of an encore performance Sunday against No. 7 seed Florida, Oral Roberts simply ran it back and deployed the same strategy it used against Ohio State, taking 53 percent of its shots from three while Florida took only 38 percent. The Golden Eagles trailed by 11 with 9:46 to play, but once those threes started falling — Oral Roberts made four of its last eight 3-pointers — they favored the underdog again. In what could have been his last media timeout of the season, coach Paul Mills went back to the trusty 3-pointer. “You’re going to have a chance to win it or put us up, and I need you to knock down this three,” he told DeShang Weaver, and with 2:10 left, Weaver hit it to give Oral Roberts the lead for good.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The national average is 11.4 percent.

  2. A metric based on the one created by Dean Oliver in “Basketball on Paper.”

  3. Three of those teams, including Oral Roberts, needed overtime to do it.

  4. No. 16 seed Iona took 41 threes against No. 1 seed North Carolina in 2019, and No. 13 seed Yale took 37 against LSU the same year.

  5. The other team is Liberty, which shoots 38.8 percent from 3-point range, takes 47.0 percent of its shots from deep and almost upset No. 4 seed Oklahoma State on Friday, falling 69-60.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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