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TULSA - The Summit League is one of the most underrated conferences in the country. They are rarely mentioned when the conversation of the best mid-major league comes up, yet they sit 12th in the league RPI standings and can claim five of the nation's top 15 scorers. And to get an idea of just how good Oral Roberts was expected to be this season, think about this: not only were the Golden Eagles the overwhelming favorite to win the league, getting 27 of the 32 first place votes, all five of their starters made preseason first or second team all-Summit.
Yet ORU didn't exactly kick off their season the way many would have liked. They lost to West Virginia in their opener and followed that up with a loss to UT-San Antonio, one that ended any chance they would play in Madison Square Garden in the Preseason NIT.
Something clicked in mid-December, however, and to the outside observer, Oral Roberts can thank the Crosstown Shootout for the turnaround.
The Golden Eagles had lost two out of three heading into that game on December 18th, succumbing to Oklahoma and Gonzaga while needing what may end up being the shot of the year to knock off Arkansas-Little Rock. And they still had to head to the Cintas Center to take on Xavier and host Texas Tech of the Big 12 before kicking off Summit League play with three road games. Throw in the fact that Dominique Morrison, their star forward, was struggling to find his rhythm early on, and the situation was far from ideal.
But ORU smoked the Musketeers, winning 64-42 -- a final that didn't even accurately represent their dominance -- against a Xavier team playing without Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Dez Wells, following that up with a 16 point win over Texas Tech before jumping out to a 10-0 start in league play.
Head coach Scott Sutton, however, places the credit elsewhere.
"It started with the UALR game," Sutton said after a 92-83 win over Oakland in front of a raucous Mabee Center. "We didn't play well in the first half and came back and hit the shot. For that shot to get the attention it did was big. Then we went up to Gonzaga and played well in a loss and beat Xavier."
"We carried that momentum into the first weekend of conference play."
With all due respect to Coach Sutton, my money says the spark that changed the Golden Eagle's season was the change in Morrison.
Over the past month, Morrison has been as good as anyone in the country. In his last 11 games, Morrison is averaging 24.7 ppg and 4.5 rpg while shooting 58.2% from the floor, 60.2% (35-58) from three and 88.2% from the line. Oral Roberts is 11-0 in that stretch. Prior to that stretch, he was averaging 15.1 ppg while shooting a career-low 41.4% from the floor and 23.5% from beyond the arc.
That's quite a swing.
"We had a meeting. Coach told me he didn't think I was playing up to my abilities," Morrison said, and it was something that he took to heart. "I had to look my self in the eye and say 'you aren't playing up to your abilities.' I just went to work even harder. I was in the gym even more and was even more dedicated. I was already dedicated but I had to do even more because I knew was letting myself down. ... I didn't want to let my coaching staff down or my team, either."
Oral Roberts hasn't lost since.
Dominique Morrison has made a career out of getting overlooked, and that started well before he enrolled at ORU, a Interdenominational Christian school with an enrollment of less than 4,000 students.
Think about this: Morrison is a guy that is on pace to score more than 2,000 points in his collegiate career, yet he was the fourth -- yes, the fourth -- option on his AAU team. Normally, this wouldn't exactly be a glowing compliment for anyone, but Morrison played for Kansas City Pump-n-Run, one of the best AAU programs in the country. Missouri's Marcus Denmon and Steve Moore and Kansas forward Travis Releford joined Morrison in that team's starting lineup.
That was a blessing for Sutton, who took advantage of the fact that recruiters from the high-major programs looked past Morrison.
"I think Dominique was a late-bloomer, number one," Sutton said. "He played on a team like that where he was the fourth option, and I think sometimes kids like that get overlooked."
There was more to it than simply not getting enough touches. Morrison simply doesn't look like he's going to be great athlete. Standing 6'6", Morrison is long and lanky with big feet and an awkward gait. He's not really a guard and he's not really a forward, either, which pigeonholed him in that dreaded "tweener" category. Throw in the dreadlocks that are now hanging down to his shoulders, and its actually not all that difficult to see why the bigger schools in the area passed initially.
Looks can be deceiving, however. So Sutton swooped in, but as it turned out, he didn't really need to do all that much recruiting.
"The funny thing is, we came down here for the Mullen's Tournament," said Morrison, whose accent can hardly be considered a drawl given how fast he can talk. "I was walking around and I was like 'this place is cool, I can see myself here.' And my AAU coach was like 'you know they're recruiting you?'"
"Coach came to watch me play when I was here, and coach kept watching me and watching me. Then I came down here on a visit, and I fell in love. But I also saw them play when I was a junior and senior in high school and I saw Caleb Greene play for two years. That attracted me a lot too. But when I came down here, I fell in love."
Morrison isn't exaggerating when he says he fell in love, either.
He signed with ORU prior to his senior year in high school and proceeded to have a sensational final season. He averaged 25.6 ppg and 6.0 rpg, leading Raytown HS to a season-long No. 1 ranking in the state of Missouri and an undefeated regular season; they eventually were knocked off in the state playoffs.
In the process, he caught the eye of a couple of programs that realized they whiffed on a talent in their backyard.
"After we signed him early in that period, he went on and had just an outstanding senior year," Sutton said. "I think a lot of folks, Big 12 folks included, were like 'man, we may have made a mistake. He's a heck of a player.'"
Sutton thought right.
"When I had already signed, Missouri started showing me interest," Morrison said, "but it was too late. My mother was like 'No, you're going to Oral Roberts', so I didn't even think about it. I didn't second guess anyway."
"Missouri was my dream school but I fell in love with Oral Roberts. Dreams go away, but love stays."
The main reason that Morrison is such a dangerous player is his efficiency.
Simply put, he doesn't take bad shots. Its incredible when you watch him play. He doesn't force the issue at all. Everything that he gets comes in the flow of the Oral Roberts' offense. Whether he's being isolated on the block of running off of a double-screen, Morrison doesn't need to dribble the ball 15 times and dominate possession in order to manufacture a good shot.
Defining Morrison as a "tweener" is probably accurate, but it would be unfair to associate him with the negative connotations that go along with that word. Morrison can step out and hit a three and he can also be effective when he catches the ball with his back to the basket. But where he thrives is in the mid-range. He is pull-up jumper is lethal. He's got a soft touch and his length, athleticism and high-release point allows him to get the shot off regardless of the defense that is being played on him. He's also dangerous when he's allowed to curl off of a down-screen.
His game is reminiscent of Texas A&M's Khris Middleton, only Morrison is a touch more athletic and has a head of hair that would make the Marleys jealous.
Heading into Saturday's game, Morrison was second in the country in efficiency rating for players considered major contributors (those that use at least 24% of their team's possessions), behind only Weber State's Damian Lillard and ahead of tempo-free favorites Mike Scott and Doug McDermott. But after scoring 24 points on 14 shots against Oakland, Morrison was no longer second on that list.
Because his usage rate dropped too far. Morrison may be the best player on ORU's team, but he's too efficienct and unselfish to actually be considered a "major contributor" to the stat-heads.
"He doesn't force shots," Sutton said. "He played IUPUI and he only had 12 points. He wasn't going out there and tried to out duel Alex Young, who he was guarding. He scored a bunch of points, but he worked for every bucket he got."
The game that Sutton is referring too happened last Saturday. Alex Young is a star guard for IUPUI and one of the five players that is averaging more than 20 ppg. Morrison, in the midst of this month-long hot streak, spent all 34 of the minutes that he was on the court guarding Young. Young went for 27 points, although it took his 27 shots to get there.
He had only 12 points, allowing his teammates to do the damage when defenses focused on him instead of worrying about getting drawn into a one-on-one shootout with the conference's Preseason Player of the Year.
"Its all about taking good shots," he said. "The coaches get mad when we take bad shots. I don't look to force shots. If its there, its there, but if not, I'll pass the ball."
That's part of why Oral Roberts is able to thrive. Morrison doesn't need to have the ball in his hands on every possession for this group to win, and he understands that. In the game we saw, Warren Niles snapped out of his season-long shooting funk to get for 27 points and hit 7-12 from long range. Michael Craion, Steven Rountree and Damen Bell-Holter are all capable of going for 20 and 10 on a given night. Roderick Pearson has a knack for making big plays for this team.
There is plenty of talent on the ORU roster, and Morrison knows that. He embraces the fact that, at times, he's the most valuable playing the role of decoy.
"He's a great team guy, he's a guy that its not all about him," Sutton said. "I think he's developed into a very good leader. The best thing I can say about him is he's just a winner. He's one of the biggest competitors I've ever coached. Whether its playing Oakland or playing a pickup game, he just wants to win."
Despite the season that he is having, I'd be willing to bet that there are a very limited number of fans outside of Tulsa that know who Dominique Morrison is. The number of experts that would be able to break down his skill-set probably isn't all that much higher.
That's part of the problem with playing in the Summit League. The games aren't on national TV. The game we went to was broadcast on tape delay on a local Fox Sports channel. That's part of the reason that, despite the way he has been playing over the last month, no one seems to mention his name.
Not even the efficiency gurus seem to have embraced Morrison, even though he is precisely the kind of player that they would love.
"He's played as well as anybody in the country the last month," Sutton said. "You look at his stats over the last three or four weeks, and its pretty amazing."
After the game, reporters had to wait a good 45 minutes to get a chance to interview Morrison.
This had nothing to do with Morrison's ego, mind you. This wasn't the result of a player getting a big head. He wasn't hurt. He wasn't even showering.
He had actually spent the entire time up in the Mabee Center's main concourse, signing autographs and taking pictures in a school-sponsored event. After signing around 250-300 posters that were given out at the game -- and countless other pieces of memorabilia, including one kid's hand -- Morrison finally made his way down to the press room.
"Everybody loves me," Morrison said with a smile that didn't off as sheepish as much as it did a kid that's living in the moment. When you play at Oral Roberts, its not every day that you get showered with adulation. What kind of person wouldn't eat up that moment and that attention? "They started clapping when I walked up."
"I'm not trying to put myself on a pedestal, but when I was walking around up there everyone was saying they're going to miss me. I am going to miss being here. I love being here. It was a different thing, it was a culture shock how nice people are. I've never been a part of this, people just opening up doors for you and always speaking. It changed me as a man, it helped me grow up."
The kid that always gets overlooked was finally getting the attention he deserves.
Now its time to wait for the rest of the nation to catchup.