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Team preview: Oral Roberts

Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at 335 Division I teams. To order the complete 2011-12 edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

(Information in this team report is as of Oct. 1.)

COACH AND PROGRAM

From 2006-08, Oral Roberts earned a place in the NCAA Tournament. The Golden Eagles haven't been back since.

With five starters returning, Scott Sutton thinks it's time for his team to end its NCAA drought.

The monster in the East, Oakland, isn't likely to go 17-1 in conference play for the third consecutive year. Oh yeah, the Golden Grizzlies will be good again, but they lost superstar center Keith Benson.

"He was so good," Sutton said. "You just don't get those kinds of players in our league very often. You talk about taking chances on kids and developing them. [Oakland coach] Greg [Kampe] did a great job. Plus, the kid grew three or four inches once he got to Oakland.

"They've had really good players. I think their guard play will be outstanding. It's just that they lose a pro. But they'll always be good as long as Greg's there."

Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

This year, the target moves to the backs of the Golden Eagles. That's fine with Sutton.

"I'd rather be favored than be picked fourth or fifth," Sutton said. "I think it means we've got some pretty good players. I figured we'd be either one or two.

"Anything other than a conference championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament will be a disappointment. We have the talent to get there."

The Golden Eagles got a taste of the postseason in 2011, losing to SMU in overtime in the opening round of the CIT.

"I thought it was important for this group because we don't have anybody left who made the NCAA Tournament or made postseason," Sutton said. "We didn't play particularly well against SMU, but we had a chance to win. I thought it was a good reward for that team."

Sutton's team struggled early in the season, starting 5-12. But it got hot late, winning 10 straight games before dropping the Summit finale against Oakland.

PLAYERS

Now, everybody's back, including Summit Player of the Year candidate Dominique Morrison (19.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg). With Benson gone to the NBA, Morrison is among of handful of players with a good chance to take his place. The 6-6 senior forward has improved every season. Sutton expects another bump.

"Dominique can improve defensively," Sutton said. "He's a very prideful player who wants to get better. He wants to be the best player he can be. We've challenged him to become a better rebounder.

"He had a great junior year and I expect him to have a great senior year."

Opponents won't be able to focus strictly on Morrison, not with Warren Niles (14.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) returning. The 6-4 junior guard is the team's top free throw shooter, hitting 81 percent a year ago.

"Warren has done a great job since last season of getting stronger," Sutton said. "He gained almost 20 pounds of muscle. That will help him tremendously. He'll be able to get into traffic, get in the lane, and absorb some contact."

Damen Bell-Holter (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) gives the Golden Eagles an inside presence. The 6-9 junior forward/center had a breakout sophomore season.

"You see great strides in big guys sometimes, and we saw that in Damen," Sutton said. "He gained a lot of confidence last year."

Steven Roundtree (12.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg), a 6-8 sophomore forward, is the fourth returning player who averaged in double figures. Roundtree hit 56 percent of his shots from the field and earned Summit newcomer-of-the-year honors.

"He's just a high-energy guy," Sutton said. "He had some monster games for us as a freshman. I expect Steven to have a better year."

The fifth starting spot will probably be a platoon situation between 6-2 senior Roderick Pearson (5.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg) and 6-0 senior Ken Holdman (5.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg).

"Both of those guys have played a lot of basketball," Sutton said. "They understand their roles. They will play a lot of minutes."

Off the bench, Sutton will turn first to 6-5 senior forward Michael Craion. The Summit Newcomer of the Year in 2009-10, Craion missed all but two games last season with a broken bone in his foot.

"We decided the best thing to do was rest him and have him come back healthy this year," Sutton said. "He makes us better significantly on the defensive end. He's always around the ball, gets his hands on passes. He could probably guard one through four if we wanted him to."

Sutton will also look to sophomore guard Mikey Manghum, who redshirted last season. The 6-2 native of Derby, England, is a solid defender.

A pair of freshman guards will also have a chance to earn minutes: 6-1 Korey Billbury and 5-11 D.J. Jackson.

Billbury played for Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School, which he helped lead to its second straight Class 5A state championship last season. Billbury was chosen MVP of the state tournament after scoring 54 points in three games.

Jackson, from Archbishop O'Hara High School in Kansas City, Mo., earned all-state honors after averaging 22 points, seven assists, five rebounds and four steals as a senior. He's one of four players from Kansas City on the Oral Roberts roster (along with Pearson, Morrison and Craion).

"This year's role will be different than their roles in the future," Sutton said of his freshman guards. "They are both talented enough that they could see some action."

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B+

BENCH/DEPTH: B+

FRONTCOURT: A

INTANGIBLES: A-

They are definitely fired up for the season in Tulsa. With good reason.

Sutton's got his best team since the mid-2000s and appears ready to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

It isn't a lock, not with only one bid available to the league. The Golden Eagles will have to play well for three consecutive days in early March. They got close last year, losing in the Summit tournament finals against Oakland. One more step ought to do it.

If they make the NCAA Tournament, none of the top seeds are going to be excited about playing the Golden Eagles. With the experience and talent on hand, Oral Roberts has a chance to break through with Sutton's first NCAA win.

"The players are excited, they're confident," Sutton said. "We have four really good seniors."

The schedule includes the usual nonconference tests. The Golden Eagles visit West Virginia, Gonzaga. Oklahoma and Xavier. Oral Roberts hosts Texas Tech and Missouri State.

"Anytime you can get a Big 12 school to come to your place, it's a good thing," Sutton said.

The Golden Eagles also play in the first two rounds of the Preseason NIT at Stillwater, Okla., opening with UTSA and hoping for a second-round matchup against host Oklahoma State.

"That will be a lot of fun going there," Sutton said.

One team not on the schedule is Tulsa. The two schools couldn't find a common date that worked for this season. But they have a agreed to a six-year deal that will start next year.

"I don't think we'll ever not play them again," Sutton said. "That's too good of a game for both teams."

Sutton will have a talented team back when the Hurricane return to the schedule. Three of his top four returnees this season are underclassmen.

"We're set up pretty good for the next couple of years to have some outstanding teams," Sutton said. "I'm excited about the future."

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.