Opinion: No. 15 seed Oral Roberts didn't get lucky in men's NCAA Tournament run. Golden Eagles are just really good.

Dan Wolken, USA TODAY
·4 min read

Max Abmas missed the shot that would have kept the most shocking men’s NCAA Tournament run in history going by a margin so small he could hardly characterize it.

“Nothing I would have done different,” said Abmas, the Oral Roberts guard whose 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have beaten Arkansas barely came up short. “Maybe shoot it up a little more. When it left my hand, it felt good.”

As just the second No. 15 seed ever to make the Sweet 16, few would have expected Oral Roberts to come so close to yet another upset in this tournament. But if anything, its performance against No. 3 seed Arkansas suggests it’s only a matter of time before a team like Oral Roberts breaks through to make a Final Four.

Max Abmas and Oral Roberts saw their Cinderella run end in the final seconds against Arkansas.
Max Abmas and Oral Roberts saw their Cinderella run end in the final seconds against Arkansas.

It’s going to happen. The only question is how soon.

“I’m proud, but you always think you're capable of so much more,” Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills said after the 72-70 loss. “Not that I’m disappointed in this group at all, but you always think, a shot there, a shot there … how different this stuff could play out.”

He’s right, of course. Oral Roberts, which led by as many as 12 points in the second half, could have won that game in any number of ways, including the final shot. And it wouldn’t have seemed like a fluke.

Oral Roberts, the fourth-place team in the Summit League this season, outplayed Ohio State and Florida in the first two rounds and looked every bit the equal of Arkansas in this tournament. And it wasn’t because the Golden Eagles got on a crazy hot shooting streak or had a bunch of lucky breaks go their way. They were just really good, making a mockery of the No. 15 seed they had been assigned by the committee.

And it wasn’t an unfair seeding. Though the Golden Eagles had played tough against teams like Wichita State and Oklahoma State at the beginning of the season, they lost five games within their conference to the likes of North Dakota, South Dakota and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In the Ken Pomeroy efficiency ratings, they were nowhere close to a top-100 team in the country.

But with a couple of really good players who could score the ball, like Abmas and Kevin Obanor, they never looked out of place. Even as they were beating teams from the SEC and the Big Ten, it never seemed like they were playing above their heads.

If anything, it was emblematic of the flattening of the college basketball universe, where the teams on Oral Roberts’ level have gotten better, and the teams at the top have become more vulnerable.

The statistics from the NCAA Tournament bear that out.

From the beginning of the 64-team field in 1985 until 2011, just four No. 15 seeds won first-round games. But over the last decade, there have been five of them — two of whom have now gone to the Sweet 16.

The same trend has taken place with the 14 seeds. Over the last eight tournaments, a 14 seed has upset a No. 3 six times. And of course, in 2018 we saw the first-round upset of all upsets when No. 16 seed UMBC knocked off Virginia.

“The job wasn’t just to get to the Sweet 16,” Abmas said. “The job was to get to the national championship and win it.”

Does it sound ridiculous? Yes, but maybe not as much as it did a few years ago.

Even if Abmas’ 3-pointer had gone in, the odds were very much against Oral Roberts winning a national championship or even beating No. 1 seed Baylor in the Elite Eight. But when you see the increasing frequency of these supposedly monumental upsets and how well teams like Oral Roberts can compete when they get to the Sweet 16, the odds over time are going to favor one of them breaking through to the Final Four.

When George Mason did it in 2006 as a No. 11 seed, it seemed like the craziest thing that had ever happened in the NCAA Tournament. Then it happened again seven years later with Loyola-Chicago. In between, Syracuse made it as a No. 10 and Butler made a national championship game as a No. 8 seed. UConn won it all in 2014 as a No. 7.

On Monday, Oregon State will have a chance to break new ground and make the Final Four as a No. 12 seed.

Over time, the best teams with the best seeds are going to win the most championships and make the most Final Fours. But every few years, the barrier to get into that club gets a little bit lower.

Oral Roberts didn’t win Saturday, but it made it seem possible that a No. 15 seed going to an Elite Eight or further is not just within reach. It's an inevitability.

Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oral Roberts didn't get lucky at men's NCAA Tournament; it's just good