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Sunday, March 12, 2006
Oral Roberts has reason to rejoice

Associated Press

TULSA, Okla. -- Oral Roberts' first NCAA tournament berth in 22 years brought Ken Tutt, Larry Owens and Jonathan Bluitt out of their front-row seats for congratulatory high-fives. The Golden Eagles will worry about facing top-seeded Memphis later. The time for rejoicing is now.

"It's been a long time," said Scott Sutton, Oral Roberts' seventh-year coach.

The Golden Eagles (21-11) missed the NCAAs last year when they won the regular-season title in the Mid-Continent Conference but lost the league's tournament game to Oakland, Mich., and had to settle for the NIT.

"We've had some really good teams not make it," said Sutton, the youngest son of Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton, who ranks No. 5 on the college basketball wins list.

"Last year's team certainly was good enough to be in the tournament. We had obviously a bad game against Oakland."

Oral Roberts made sure it wouldn't get shut out again this year by beating Chicago State 85-72 for the conference tournament title on Tuesday. That secured the school's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1984, when future NBA player Mark Acres led the way.

Even though the Golden Eagles knew they were in the 65-team field, the players still leaped out of their chairs when the team's name showed up on a big screen TV in the practice gym.

Then the cell phones came out. The first call for Tutt, Owens and leading scorer Caleb Green was to their mothers. Tutt, who is from Garland, Texas, had mistakenly told his mother the selection show was an hour later, so he had to pass along the news.

"When I told her we were playing in Dallas, she started screaming the whole time," Tutt said.

Oral Roberts drew the top-seeded Tigers (27-3), the champions of Conference USA and the No. 5 team in the country, in the first round.

"I know they're very athletic, so that's going to be a tough little challenge," said Green, whose averages of 20.8 points and 8.9 rebounds are both tops on the team.

Sutton, though disappointed with the No. 16 seed, said he thinks the Golden Eagles match up best with Memphis out of all the top seeds.

"Believe me, if a 16th seed thinks they can beat a No. 1 seed, this is the team," Sutton said.

Sutton said he was thrilled with the placement. All but two of the team's regular players are from Oklahoma or Texas, and Dallas is the coaching staff's top recruiting ground outside Oklahoma.

"Just about everybody who's playing for us will have family members there. They'll have friends there," Sutton said. "You couldn't have picked a better place to play."

Sutton thought the tournament committee might have accounted for the impact of injuries to Tutt and backup Chris Riouse and bumped the Golden Eagles up a rung or two. A couple too many early-season losses might have been an overriding factor, though.

"We were hoping to get a little higher than that but it doesn't really matter to me," said Tutt, who led the team with 25 points in the Mid-Con title game. "I'm just happy to be inside the tournament. It's a great experience for us to come out here and showcase our talents and showcase our team and represent our program. I'm just happy to be playing."

Founded by Oral Roberts in 1963, the university remains the center of the 88-year-old televangelist's ministry. A statue of two 60-foot praying hands stands at the entrance to the campus and a golden Prayer Tower with a spire that reaches 200 feet tall is the home to a group that takes prayer requests by telephone 24 hours each day.

The family's television broadcasts are recorded and produced in the "Baby Mabee," a smaller version of the Mabee Center basketball arena. The two are attached by a walkway.

Oral Roberts is now the school's chancellor. His son, Richard Roberts, is the university president.

Oral Roberts' basketball glory days came in the 1970s when Richard Fuqua, the school's career scoring leader, led the Titans -- the team's name changed to Golden Eagles in 1993 -- to back-to-back NIT bids before they made it to the round of eight in their first NCAA tournament trip in 1974.

Four more NIT trips followed in the next decade before the school dropped down to the NAIA level for two years. This trip to the NCAAs marks the school's first back-to-back postseason appearances in three decades.

"The whole world's going to see Oral Roberts on the map now," Owens said. "It's good for the school."