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College Basketball

There Is A Right Answer To Duke–Oral Roberts

Kyle Filipowski and Connor Vanover
Lance King, Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Many people, including the editor of this blog I'm writing, would have you believe that Thursday night's 5-12 matchup in the East region is a "root for the meteor" situation. The favorite is Duke, an exhaustingly self-important private school dynasty. The underdog, Oral Roberts, bans "homosexual activity" and sex outside of marriage. Neither the preppies nor the virgins make for a likeable story, exactly, but something tips the balance in ORU's favor: It is always correct, no matter the circumstances, to root for Duke to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And the Golden Eagles actually have a shot at making it happen.

I'm sure you know about the 5-12 phenomenon. It's one of those default pieces of bracket advice that you'll see even in places that don't cover college basketball. In 31 of the past 36 years, a 12-seed has won at least one game. Last year it happened twice, for New Mexico St. and Richmond, and in 2019 three out of four 12s moved on. Five-seeds are so vulnerable, the thinking goes, because 11 is generally where the at-large bids end. The 12, then, is for the best teams from the country's weaker conferences, who more than occasionally match up well against relatively weaker teams from the stronger conferences.

Oral Roberts certainly qualifies among the best of the worse. In the Summit League, which Kenpom ranks as the 24th-toughest conference out of 32, ORU ran the table, putting up an 18-0 record in conference play before three wins at the tournament clinched their NCAA spot. At 17 straight wins, they have the nation's longest active streak, and all four of their non-conference losses came in genuinely difficult road games: at Houston, Saint Mary's, Utah St., and New Mexico. In their most recent outing, they kicked the hides off the NDSU Bison, 92-58, to win the Summit title.

You probably remember Oral Roberts from their last appearance in this tournament, just two years ago. As a much less impressive-looking 15-seed, they shocked Ohio State in overtime and followed up with a thrilling comeback against Florida before falling to Arkansas in the Sweet 16. The critical player from that team, Max Abmas, is still around, playing his fourth season as a high-scoring guard and leading a three-friendly gang that works quickly without making mistakes. He won the Summit Player of the Year just as he did in 2021, ranking seventh in the country with 22.2 points per game, and he also hit this sweet half-court shot to beat the University of Missouri–Kansas City Roos a couple months ago.

Abmas is not who I'm excited to see, however. Before I get to that player, though, let's talk about Duke. The Blue Devils, helped along by their pedigree and a critical injury for their potential future dance partner Tennessee, look like a fairly popular Final Four pick, especially for a five seed. Iowa's faceplant last year should have taught everyone that "momentum" is a fickle mistress in a single-elimination tournament, but Duke is coming in hot. After an inconsistent opening two-thirds to their ACC season (and the ACC sucked this year), this freshman-heavy group worked out the kinks for the stretch. They've got nine straight wins heading into this one, the biggest statement being the defensive dismantling of Virginia in the ACC final at the Greensboro Coliseum.

The superstar of that weekend was undoubtedly Kyle Filipowski. A 19-year-old seven-footer from New York, Filipowski looked good from the start but really asserted himself as a force in the paint as he scored 22 in the final regular-season game at UNC and then 59 across three appearances last weekend. He's a disruptive defender and an assertive rebounder, plus he can draw fouls and make opponents pay at the stripe. Longer-range shooting is still a soft spot, but this is an unreal combination of size and athleticism.

OK, that's Duke. But what if I told you Oral Roberts has an even taller white boy? Impossible, you say? Well look at this:

That's Connor Vanover. He's listed by the team at 7-foot-5, 227 pounds, and he's the stuff of nightmares for the other so-called big men of the Summit League. He's just too tall, is what he is. He's second in the country in blocked shots, and on two-pointers this year he's basically dropping apple cores in the compost bin. But because this is what basketball looks like in 2023, he can also be a respectable shooter from long range, going 43-for-129 and giving ORU the option of a lineup where every guy is at least a threat from deep. At his previous schools, Cal and Arkansas, Vanover didn't amount to much, but given this opportunity in Tulsa, he's taking everything he wants from our most mediocre amateur defenders.

I want to see this goofball beat Duke, even if it means hell is real and I'm going to end up there. It remains a distinct possibility that Filipowski and his other tall buddy Dereck Lively show a toughness alien to ORU's schedule and just bully Vanover for 40 minutes, turning this game into a 1-on-5 challenge for Abmas. But the Devils also have the inexperience to lay an egg in a must-win situation, and with the Eagles' own recent tourney history, their shooting ability, and their tall man up front, ORU is absolutely a threat to pull off the upset. I don't think it will be hard to find glee in that outcome. And then you can root for Tennessee.

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