On a “MARCH MADNESS” taped field, about 90 seconds after the start of his first NCAA men’s tournament game, Max Abmas drawn from the logo without hesitation. The star of Oral Roberts came in on Friday as the top scorer in the country at 24.2 points per game. The Ohio State certainly managed to suffocate him at every opportunity. Abmas’ answer was to fire back from further afield. He drilled that deep 3-pointer, pushing his team’s lead to 7-0 in a match that the 15th-seeded Golden Eagles would play. win in overtime75-72.
As always, it would be silly to look back at Oral Roberts’ unlikely flight to the Sweet 16 and say it was easy to see it coming. FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness model estimated the Golden Eagles’ odds at 6 percent in the first round against Ohio State. Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner’s Model catapult, which rewards teams that tend to take and make 3-pointers, puts the underdog’s odds at 9 percent. And when the No. 15 seed trailed by 8 in the first half of Friday, Ken Pomeroy had a 2.3 percent chance of winning. Regardless, the upset was far-fetched, as were the eight previous 15v2 upsets.
But Oral Roberts’ dependence on individual star power harks back to another victorious Number 15 seed – Lehigh, directed by CJ McCollum in 2012. McCollum exploded on the scene with 30 points in one first round upset by Duke, then parlayed that performance into one first round design choice next year. Abmas is a sophomore who was alone five scholarship offers in high school: from Oral Roberts, Marist, Air Force, Army and Navy. All season long, he collected points in McCollum-esque obscurity. He had already done it dropped 28 points against Wichita State, 33 against Oklahoma State and 20 against Oklahoma earlier this season.
As it turns out, Abmas had the perfect shot to wipe out even a Big Ten defense. During the season, he took 27.9 percent of his shots, not just from behind the three-point line, but 25 to 9 meters from the basket, according to CBB AnalyticsAnd while he’s a great 3 point shooter overall – 86th in the country at 43.1 percent – his accuracy really goes up up to 45.2 percent in that range of 25 to 9 meters. So yes, Ohio State followed the reconnaissance 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 for a No. 15 seed. His offensive KenPom rating is 122.8, third in the country this season and the 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 Friday, 30 and Sunday, 28 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.
|2004-05||Spencer Nelson||Utah state||127.1|
|2017-18||Jock Landale||St. Mary’s||125.8|
|2015-16||Denzel Valentine||Michigan state||125.7|
|2016-17||John Collins||Wake Forest||124.8|
|2011-12||Damian Lillard||Weber State||124.4|
|2015-16||John Brown||High point||123.9|
|2012-13||Nate Wolters||State of South Dakota||123.5|
|2015-16||Mike Daum||State of South Dakota||123.3|
|2020-21||Max Abmas||Oral Roberts||122.8|
In retrospect, Oral Roberts amazed the state of Ohio and then Florida for playing the role of Cinderella perfectly. The Golden Eagles are elite in a few categories: They are the best free-throw team in the country (82.4 percent), taking 46.4 percent of their shots from a 3-point range (18th nationally), they make up 38.2 percent of those threes (15th national), and they avoid sales (15.4 percent of assets, 15th national). Those numbers alone would of course not have been enough to bring down a top 10 team. But at least they made such an opportunity possible.
Because Oral Roberts limited turnover (six, compared to Ohio State’s 16), more field goal shots were needed (70 to 67) despite being defeated by 17. This was no coincidence: State ranks 336th in the country in generating revenue, ”said coach Paul Mills told reporters after the match. “So we knew we were getting into a game where there wouldn’t be much pressure.” And because the Golden Eagles made half of their 70 shots from a 3-point range, they stuck around even as they suffered a predictable drop in accuracy against a Big Ten team. That was no coincidence: “They shoot from everywhere,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said as his team prepared during the week. And Oral Roberts hit from everywhere, 5-for-9 shooting from 25 to 30 feet.
Oral Roberts’ risky strategy may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s easier said than executed. In the past 10 NCAA tournaments, only 16 teams tried to play 35 3-pointers in a game, and Oral Roberts was the only one to do so as the No. 15 seed. This season, only one other team is in the top 20 of the country in both the 3-point attempt and the 3-point make-rate.
Of the eight previous No. 15 seeds only one – Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 – managed to hit the Sweet 16. Looking for an encore on Sunday against No. 7 seed FloridaOral Roberts simply took it back and applied the same strategy it used against the state of Ohio, taking 53 percent of three shots, while Florida took only 38 percent. The Golden Eagles followed by 11 with 9:46 to play, but when those threes started to fall – Oral Roberts made four of the last eight three-pointers – they preferred the underdog again. In what could have been his last media timeout of the season, coach Paul Mills went back to the familiar 3-pointer. “You’re going to have a chance to win it or throw us into the fray, and I need you to overthrow these three,” he DeShang Weaver told, and with 2:10 left, Weaver hit it off to put Oral Roberts in charge for good.
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