Game 23: Oakland (14-8, 9-0) vs Oral Roberts (9-12, 6-3)
Thursday, January 27, 2011 | 7:00pm EST
Oakland enters the second-half of conference play with an undefeated mark that includes a victory over every other Summit League opponent. One of the team's toughest wins came at Oral Roberts at the end of December at a time when ORU's championship contender status looked like it was in serious jeopardy. Since then, however, the Golden Eagles have won four straight league games to get to 6-3, good for second place in the league. A win over Oakland in Rochester would give them an edge on the other second place teams. However, the O'rena will likely be rocking for this annual rivalry game and should prove to be a tough environment for the Golden Eagles to come away with a win.
The Surging Golden Eagles
The 2010-11 season had been a rocky one for Oral Roberts up until the last two weeks. The team had a disappointing non-conference season (although that loss to Indiana State isn't looking too bad right now) and dropped its first two conference home games. Injuries, most notably Michael Craion's season-ending foot setback, were cited as one of the primary reasons for the rough start. However, it should be noted that this is also the second youngest team in the conference so perhaps preseason expectations were a bit too high at first. Then things looked incredibly gloomy after Dominique Morrison went down with a knee injury, yet the team came together to win two of three conference games played without the All-League forward. Morrison is playing again, somehow, and it looks like he rebounded well at home against Centenary after a rough first game back against UMKC in which he went 2-of-11 from the field. With Morrison back, Warren Niles finding some consistency, Damen Bell-Holter improving on a ceiling that could make him the next dominant big man in the conference, and freshman Steven Roundtree continuing to perform above expectations (when he's not in foul trouble), this has the look of a team that is built to make a surge down the stretch here. Perhaps that pre-season second place finish is not out of reach for the Golden Eagles.
Key Personnel Match-Up
Keith Benson vs. Damen Bell-Holter
Keith Benson is not a stranger to players going all out against him. Teams without much of a frontcourt have resorted to thick double-and-triple-teams of the senior center, while those featuring players with size have opted to be as physical as possible. The latter method has worked for some teams, as we saw Marshall Bjorklund have a solid night against Benson last Saturday. For Oral Roberts, that method didn't go as planned in the first meeting of the series: Damen Bell-Holter was in foul trouble for much of the night and ended the game with six points on 2-of-10 shooting. Benson, on the other hand, had 20 points and 13 rebounds. Kito is coming off his best back-to-back games since the middle of December, and DBH is likely to want to show that his prior performance on Benson was an outlier to an otherwise promising season for the sophomore.
The other frontcourt match-up of Will Hudson and Steven Roundtree will be interesting to watch as well. Hudson had a great game against ORU last time out, but Rountree's athletic ability allowed him to have an impressive showing as well despite the fact he's a string bean freshman. Roundtree got into foul trouble last time (and leads the conference in fouls committed at 3.476 per game) which aided Oakland down the stretch. ORU's bigs will need to be careful in this department as Keith Benson and Will Hudson, in conference games, lead the league in free throw rate, topping the next best man by a whopping 10 percentage points!
Oral Roberts Player To Watch: Warren Niles
Since scoring just three points on 1-of-9 shooting against Oakland in December, Warren Niles has scored in double figures in every subsequent ORU game. That streak includes back-t0-back 25+ point nights against SDSU and SUU earlier in January. Niles seems to have found some consistency, though a large number of his shot attempts are still coming from beyond the arc where he shoots 38.4%. We'd expect Travis Bader and Larry Wright to spend time guarding Niles which is a task not to be taken lightly. If he gets hot from the field, especially given his propensity to shoot treys, then ORU becomes an even more dangerous squad.
Oakland Player To Watch: Larry Wright
Now that he is back to full-strength, it will be interesting to see what kind of role Larry Wright plays for the rest of the season. It seems that Coach Kampe is sticking with a starting backcourt of Reggie Hamilton and Travis Bader which means Wright could continue to fill the sixth man role. He was superb in 24 minutes of play at North Dakota State last Saturday, using his quickness and smooth stroke to get off a flurry of nothing-but-net jumpers. ORU has been a fairly strong rebounding team in conference play and features a number of guards who board the ball well, so OU could also use Wright on the glass in this match-up.
Oakland and Oral Roberts have a deep history in conference play, but the most recent game between the two schools at the O'rena was a classic. Last season, ORU happened to draw Oakland on its homecoming, so the crowd was huge and very active. The student section was particularly rampant for this game, too. Despite the major home crowd advantage, the game was close throughout and came down to a last minute shot by Johnathon Jones that gave the Golden Grizzlies a 79-77 victory.
The Extra Pass
A bit more on Dominique Morrison. As noted earlier, the junior forward missed a few conference games due to a knee injury but appeared to be ready to go again last weekend. When he has played, Morrison has been rock solid for the Golden Eagles in league games. Though his sample size isn't as larger as other players, he still leads The Summit League in scoring through the first half of play with an impressive 22.5 points per game. He's doing that on 55.1% shooting from the field, 44.8% from beyond the arc, and 87.8% at the charity stripe. Impressive, sure. But he's also been efficient in translating his field goal and free throw attempts into points, as measured by points per weighted shot. In league games, among those who play at least 20 minutes per game, Morrison posts one of the highest PPWS:
1. Drew Valentine (OAK), 1.60
2. Travis Bader (OAK), 1.50
3. Dominique Morrison (ORU), 1.40
4. Ben Botts (IPFW), 1.40
5. Christian Siakam (IUPUI), 1.40
Morrison and Botts are the only featured scorers of that bunch, which is a solid indication of how efficient they've been thus far. However, one of the reasons Oakland has been so tough to beat is because of the contributions of the entire team; as we can see, Valentine and Bader check in with the most impressive PPWS measures in the conference thus far. It's been about a month since Morrison torched Oakland for 32 points, and in that time we've seen Valentine grow into a rather great defender. We'll learn in this game just how far he's come as he will have the challenge of guarding Morrison again, but perhaps this time Morrison will also need a stellar performance to stop the man he's guarding too.
This week's Grizz Talk, courtesy of Paul Kampe of The Oakland Press, offers some perspective on the ORU game. He interviews Coach Kampe, Larry Wright, and Blake Cushingberry. Check it out here. The Tulsa World's Mike Brown has an article about ORU Coach Scott Sutton approaching the school's coaching wins record here. Dan Fenner of The Oakland Post, OU's student newspaper, has an article recapping last week's historic wins and previewing the ORU battle here. Finally, the underground student satire newsletter for the Oral Roberts game is available here (that Morrison-Predator comparison is darn funny).
As always, if you're interested in getting in on the conversation with other Oakland fans before, during, and after the game, we highly suggest checking out the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum: Game Thread.