Can anyone beat undefeated Oral Roberts in the Summit League tourney?
Golden Eagles, two years removed from the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, are 18-0 as the top seed.
SIOUX FALLS — Same story. Different year. Different team.
South Dakota State made history last year when they went undefeated in conference play, going 18-0 in Summit League games. They were the first men's team ever to do it.
The very next year, this year, Oral Roberts repeated the feat.
The Jackrabbits followed up their perfect season with three more wins in the conference tournament to reach the NCAA tournament.
Can the Golden Eagles (27-4) do the same thing? Well, yeah, of course they can. They're really good. Their 18 wins were five better than second-place SDSU (18-12, 13-5).
But ORU is not unbeatable. Three of their conference wins came by just three points. One of those was against last-place Omaha, another was against 12-18 North Dakota. Of their last six games, only their 82-70 win over USD was by a double-digit margin, and even that comes with the caveat that USD benched three starters for disciplinary reasons, and ORU was up 11-0 when those three were inserted into the game. They played even the rest of the way.
"It's March, everybody is 0-0," said USD coach Eric Peterson. "Probably everybody in our league was trying to get on the opposite side of the bracket from Oral Roberts. If you happen to make the championship game and play a team like Oral Roberts — they're a great team but they're not super deep. They play seven guys. If you're gonna pick a game to play them that would be the game."
While their handful of close games indicates anyone could upset the Eagles if things go their way, the team most likely to knock off ORU is SDSU. The Jackrabbits are the 2-seed, and wouldn't face them until the finals, but if they get there, they'd obviously have a full Premier Center behind them.
While the sea of blue has at times seemed to put pressure on SDSU when they were the favorites, the noise and energy of their crowd could be just the spark they need as underdogs. The Eagles would be the ones feeling the heat. The year ORU defeated SDSU in the Summit League tournament (and went on to the Sweet 16) it was played in the Pentagon with no fans in the stands.
"I don't know if there's been any pressure whatsoever," said Jacks guard Zeke Mayo. "We're obviously a very talented team. We know we can get the job done. It all comes down to the people in our circle — we have to trust in each other and play with confidence. We can do it."
The Jacks are also the hottest team in the league besides ORU. They had a seven-game winning streak before falling to the Eagles in the regular season finale, but that loss felt like a productive one for SDSU. They had lost to ORU 79-40 in their first meeting back in December. This time it was 69-65, and while ORU's defense deserves credit for keeping the Jacks under 70, SDSU was guilty of enough self-inflicted mistakes to feel like they could've won the game.
"That was definitely a better game than the first time we played them," said Jacks center Matt Dentlinger. "We still felt like we should've gotten the win. Going into the Summit League tournament that would be a good matchup, but we're really looking at it one game at a time."
Indeed, SDSU first faces the winner of Friday's play-in game between 7th-seeded Kansas City and 10th-seeded Omaha.
USD, the 6-seed, opens with third-seeded North Dakota State, and the winner of that would play SDSU, assuming the Jacks win their opener on Saturday. The Coyotes and Bison both come in with momentum, too.
Still, as tempting as it can be locally to talk ourselves into SDSU or USD making a run, the Eagles are the favorites for a reason. Close calls or not, 18-0 is 18-0. ORU was in the Sweet 16 two years ago, where sharpshooting guard Max Abmas led them within a bucket of the Elite Eight. He's still there, leading the Summit League in scoring this season, while 7-foot-5 center Connor Vanover gave them an effective inside presence alongside key contributors like Isaac McBride, Carlos Jurgens and Kareem Thompson.
"Max is an elite talent," said Bison coach Dave Richman. "Vanover adds a presence defensively for them, but you have to give guys like Carlos Jurgens credit. They space the floor, they have great parts and they play with tremendous pace."
The Eagles open with the winner of Denver and North Dakota. Win that and they'd play the winner of Western Illinois and St. Thomas. Win that, they're almost certain to be facing one of the Dakota schools in Tuesday's championship.
"I do think there's a lot of parity in our league," said Jacks coach Eric Henderson. "You look at Oral Roberts and they're obviously the clear favorite - that's no secret. But that doesn't mean — I guarantee you (Eagles coach Paul Mills) is thinking about every team the same way, too. Whether you're 18-0 or whatever, we're all 0-0 now, and we're all playing for the same thing. That's what makes this the best time of the year."