POSTED ON NOVEMBER 17, 2010:
Even without the dynamic duo of Uzoh and Jordan, Tulsa believes it can make a run at a championship
“Of course they want to go out and win a championship,” Wojcik said. “Of course they’re itching to get to not just the postseason, which we’ve done each of the past three years, but to get to the NCAA Tournament.”
After 100 years of basketball, the University of Tulsa has dealt with change before.
Coaches and players come and go, but the name on the jersey doesn't change.
But while Tulsa's rich basketball history isn't going anywhere, it's not always an easy replacing one star player, let alone two.
After the 1998 season, the Chicago Bulls lost Michael Jordan to retirement and Scottie Pippen to free agency. The 1999 team finished 13-37 in the lockout-shortened season.
The 2002-03 Utah Jazz featured two of the all-time greats in Karl Malone and John Stockton. Before the start of the next season, Malone joined the Los Angeles Lakers and Stockton retired. Without the two all-stars, the Jazz finished a respectable 42-40, but missed the playoffs for the first time since 1983.
In 2008, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels won the national championship in dominating fashion, only trailing for 10 minutes in the entire NCAA Tournament. The next season, the Tar Heels were without four starters from the previous year -- Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green -- finishing 20-17 (with a dismal 5-11 conference record) and missing the NCAA Tournament.
After losing all starters from back-to-back national championship teams, the University of Florida Gators finished the 2007-08 season with a 24-12 record, but missed the NCAA Tournament.
This summer, LeBron James abandoned his home-state Cleveland Cavaliers and took his talents to South Beach. The jury is still out on this year's version of the Cavs.
And it goes on
Tulsa is no stranger to this pattern.
But they hope to break it.
Beginning with the 1999-2000 squad that advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament and solidified Tulsa's place among college basketball's elite mid-major teams, the Golden Hurricane were led by players fans won't soon forget.
That Elite Eight Squad featured names such as Tony Heard, David Shelton, Eric Coley, Greg Harrington and Marcus Hill, with younger players Dante Swanson and Antonio Reed forming the supporting cast.
The next season, Swanson and Reed stepped up, and, along with Shelton, Harrington and Hill, led Tulsa to the NIT Championship.
The joyride continued for two more seasons, with the Golden Hurricane reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2002 and 2003. Eventually, all those names disappeared from the roster, and TU finished 9-20 in back-to-back seasons.
A new coach and a couple of successful seasons later, the Golden Hurricane are now facing the task of replacing two of Conference USA's best -- Ben Uzoh and Jerome Jordan.
Mama, don't let your little point guards be coaches.
Changing of the Guard
"I think the neat thing about our profession is that, for any coach, your team changes on a yearly basis. Your landscape changes. That takes away from the monotony of any job," says TU head coach Doug Wojcik. "There are new challenges, new personalities and we're embracing all of that."
Entering his sixth year at the spaceship on 11th St., he knows a thing or two about change.
Wojcik took over the Golden Hurricane program in 2005 after former coaches, John Phillips (and Alvin "Pooh" Williamson) led Tulsa to back-to-back 9-20 finishes. The new coach was charged with restoring the program to its former heights.
Wojcik's hiring coincided with another change -- the 2005-06 season was Tulsa's first in Conference USA after nine years in the Western Athletic Conference. Under Wojcik's guidance, the Golden Hurricane have twice appeared in the C-USA championship game.
While changing conferences is a big deal and can have a monumental effect on a program, the players are the ones competing on the court. Losing players to graduation and the NBA is a part of the game, but it isn't always easy to replace big-time talents such as Ben Uzoh and Jerome Jordan.
As a senior, Uzoh averaged 15.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and provided Tulsa with a constant scoring threat. While Uzoh went undrafted, he signed with the New Jersey Nets and played in six preseason games.
Jordan averaged 15.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game as a senior. The 7-footer was drafted with the 44th overall draft pick by the Milwaukee Bucks, then traded to the New York Knicks. Jordan didn't sign with Knicks, instead choosing to play for Serbian club KK Hemofarm.
While Jordan and Uzoh aren't Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen or Karl Malone and John Stockton, it's still incredibly difficult to replace two players of that caliber, players the community embraced and enjoyed to watch.
Without their two, star players, some might anticipate a setback, a "down" year for TU. That'd be news to the players and coaches.
"Some people might expect a little bit of a drop off, but I think a lot of people are going to be surprised when they see that we might even have gotten a little better," junior team captain Steven Idlet said.
"We'll be a lot more versatile this year. A lot of teams knew what they were getting last year with Ben and Jerome, and I think a lot of teams aren't going to know what to expect (this season) and we might catch some people off guard."
Wojcik is willing to take that a step further. He doesn't think it's ridiculous to believe Tulsa will actually be better without Uzoh and Jordan.
"I think we'll be different," Wojcik said. "I think at the point of attack, it's hard to make up for a guy in Ben Uzoh who's 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and started 140 games. We'll just be different, but we'll be deeper. I don't think we'll be totally dependent on two players. That's going to be the fun part about it."
Senior team captain Justin Hurtt said a championship may not be out of reach.
"I really feel like we have a good chance to (win a conference championship)," said the returning starter. "That's what we're working toward, and I feel like this might be our best chance since I've been here to win a conference championship."
Talk of a championship may seem farfetched for a team that lost its two best players from a season ago, but with a hardworking team and a solid defense, anything is possible.
Defense Wins Championships
That was the score of the 2010 national championship game, a defensive battle between college basketball king Duke and "Are we sure this isn't Hickory High?" Butler.
It's a score that has become a mantra for Wojcik, despite the turnover on the roster.
"What stays the same are defense and rebounding," he said. "Those are staples for any program to be successful. One thing I'll tell you that I've been saying to a lot of people throughout the year is that the national championship game was won at 61-59. Butler is in the national championship game because they guard you, and that's very impressive."
The old sports adage says defense wins championships, and stout defense has been a trademark of Wojcik's teams at Tulsa. His Hurricane teams have held 154 of their 169 opponents to less than 50-percent shooting from the field. In addition, Tulsa has held the opposition to 60 points or less in 53 of his 104 career victories.
Wojcik doesn't employ an all-out full court press, instead focusing on tightening down in the half-court. There is a method to his madness.
"You will not see my team running around trapping randomly," he said. "I just don't know if you can do that against a great team that you play. You can randomly trap a poor ball handler. We're going to have a purpose for everything we do. If we pick up in the backcourt, then we pick up in the backcourt. We will have enough depth to do that."
That depth includes sophomore transfer Scottie Haralson. Prior to coming to Tulsa, Haralson played as a freshman on a Connecticut team that advanced to the 2009 Final Four.
"(Wojcik) knows what he's talking about," Haralson said. "Defense wins championships. In order for us to be successful, we have to play defense. He emphasizes that a lot throughout practice and we just have to take that, work hard, work on our defense and we'll be a better team."
Hurtt, who scored a team season-high 34 points in a game at East Carolina last season, knows that for the Hurricane to compete for a league championships, the team's defense needs to improve on the 65.3 points allowed per game from a season ago, one of the highest averages of the Wojcik era.
"We work on the offense because we have to be able to score the ball, but defensively, we want to be a better team than we were last year," Hurtt said. "We want to really pressure the ball and get after guys. I feel like defense is going to win games for us.
"We've always been a solid defensive team, but last year wasn't as good as it could have been because we had depth issues. We don't have those kind of issues this year."
There's that depth talk again.
Although losing Jordan and Uzoh certainly stings, they, along with Bishop Wheatley, were the only players to leave the team after last season.
The team returns seven players from a season ago, including starters Hurtt and Joe Richard.
Richard averaged 5.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game a season ago as a sophomore, providing a steady presence in the TU lineup.
But it's team captains Hurtt and Idlet who the team will look to for leadership.
Hurtt averaged 14.5 points last season, and Wojcik said he has potential to be "the guy" for the Hurricane this season.
"(Hurtt's) got a ton of experience," Wojcik said. "He has a chance to spread his wings and really be the guy now with the departure of the three seniors from last year."
While Hurtt commands the backcourt, Wojcik said the coaching staff expects Idlet to take charge of the frontcourt.
"In the post, (Steven) scores it just as well as Jerome did," Wojcik said. "I always felt Jerome had unbelievable talents as far as touch, left hand, right hand and great feet. Steven doesn't have that length, that wingspan, but left hand, right hand, score, good attitude, rebound, take an elbow to the nose -- he's not shying away. That's what he'll bring to the table."
Other returning lettermen include sophomores Donte Medder and Byrson Pope and senior Glenn Andrews. They will be joined by transfers Haralson and D.J. Magley, and a freshman class that includes Jordan Clarkson and Tim Peete, players Wojcik called "the most advanced freshmen we've had."
Setting the Stage
As a new season and the journey toward a championship begin, the players and coaches realize there is an uphill climb to the top. But they aren't scared of the competition.
"There's not a team that makes us worry, but there are some good teams," Hurtt said. "Memphis, of course -- we haven't beaten them since I've been here. They have the top recruiting class, and they're going to be a team to beat. UTEP won the conference last year. Southern Miss has all their guys back. UAB was really good last year. So there are some good teams, but I feel like we have a really good chance of doing well this year."
Wojcik said he believes there will be some parity in the conference this season, and that any one of a handful of teams could emerge as champion.
"I think there will be quite a few good teams," he said. "UTEP has a new coach and they lost (Arnett) Moultrie and (Derrick) Caracter. I think the team that will be really tough will be Southern Miss. I think they have a matchup problem for people in Gary Flowers. You know Memphis -- their recruiting class was ranked No. 1 -- we've got to give them credit. In our case, we have to go there. In Southern Miss' case, they come here. UAB -- you know Mike Davis always has something up his sleeve. He's a good coach. We get them here. I think East Carolina hired a great coach in Jeff Lebo. I think they'll beat people."
But the players aren't backing down. There's a job to do.
"Of course they want to go out and win a championship," Wojcik said. "Of course they're itching to get to not just the postseason, which we've done each of the past three years, but to get to the NCAA Tournament. I think we'll see that come out through not only their skill set and experience, but also their personality."
There's certainly no lack of personality -- or confidence -- with this team. The players believe they can win, and win now.
After all, with such a rich basketball history developed throughout the past 100 years, there is a certain level of pride, confidence and even swagger that comes with wearing a jersey with the name "Tulsa" on the front.
True freshman Peete may have put it best.
"Hopefully, we can show the world that Tulsa basketball is back in its 100th year."
Autumn Dreaming. "Yeah, I think I would have to be honest," he said. "I think this team has a chance to win a conference championship. I will be disappointed if we do not."
Cover Story, Part II
Fly Like an Eagle
ORU poised to challenge for Summit League championship
By Dwayne Davis
"I like the potential of this team," said Oral Roberts head coach Scott Sutton. "The element of luck always comes into play in order to have a special year. If we can stay healthy and guys improve like I think they will, this team has a chance to be awfully good."
He is not alone. Several outlets tabbed Oral Roberts to be the second best team in the Summit League this season. Oakland grabbed the majority of the votes and looks to be the cream of the crop. This according to an array of league coaches, sports information directors and media.
Sutton voted Oakland the top team, but only because his hand was forced.
"You could not vote for your own team," Sutton said. Would ORU earn the top spot in his uncensored version?
"Yeah, I think I would have to be honest," he said. "I think this team has a chance to win a conference championship. I will be disappointed if we do not."
If you cannot trust a coach entering his 12th season at Oral Roberts, who can you trust?
Hard to believe, but the youngest of the Sutton coaching clan will have a dozen years under his belt at year's end. Like most coaches' sons, he has experienced living in many areas of the country. Tulsa is the only town he is proud to call home for the past 16 years.
"The city of Tulsa is home," he said. "My family loves it." His tight-knit relationship with Athletic Director Mike Carter makes a natural fit.
Of course, adding to the family atmosphere is an actual family member. ORU reached out to the beleaguered ex-Oklahoma State head coach Sean Sutton.
It is a risky move. The university understands the ramifications. Then again, if Sean cannot regain control of his life in this situation, perhaps he never will.
According to the release posted on ORUGoldenEagles.com, "Sean Sutton will serve as ORU's Executive Adviser to the basketball staff. In his new role Sutton will be allowed to interact with coaches during games and practices but will not be permitted to provide direct instruction to players. He is serving in an unpaid capacity." It is an unpaid position.
Do not expect Thanksgiving dinner to turn into an X's and O's chalk talk at the Sutton house. "My mom has always done a pretty good job of separating family time from basketball," he said. "I'm sure that will be the case again this year." She has plenty of experience one would guess.
Sean helps the team and staff as much as allowed. He provides a fresh set of eyes to Scott and his staff.
"I think Sean has brought some ideas to our staff that has helped our team so far and will continue to help our team," said the head coach.
When the Golden Eagles take the court, two preseason all-conference players lead the way. Michael Craion and Dominique Morrison are explosive scorers who cause matchup problems for opponents.
Morrison averaged 13 points per game a year ago. He committed this summer to improve his strength. He is a natural leader, one of the best to ever don the ORU jersey.
Being a leader is not easy. Some possess skills, while others talk a good game. Morrison was blessed with both basketball skill and a presence others follow. Players feed off of his energy because he walks the walk.
"It makes it a lot easier," said Sutton of having leaders on the court. "We've had teams here that did not have leadership. You need guys to be able to step up and speak their mind and set good examples especially when they are your better players."
Morrison is a prototypical collegiate tweener. At 6-foot-6, he is a slashing, scoring swingman. He attacks. In high school he filled the role of the post player. He spends plenty of time in the paint these days.
"You have to go to the basket and draw fouls," Morrison said. "That is something I pride myself in."
He takes his first-team all-conference selection in stride. It just adds motivation to prove everyone correct. There is a chance he might wind up being the best player in the entire league.
The goal remains the same for ORU each and every year. Improve throughout the season. Peak during the Summit League postseason tournament. Earn the automatic bid to the NCAA madness.
Coach Sutton continues developing ORU as a top-10 or -15 mid-major program. If Butler and Gonzaga can do it, why not the Golden Eagles?
The season tipped off Friday, Nov. 12 with a tough loss on the road at Missouri State. The second game of the year was a special one.
The Golden Eagles visited their cross-town rival for another glorious Mayor's Cup contest Tuesday.
This year's battle took place in the Reynolds Center on TU's campus.
Why not play the game at the BOK Center? Would the game sell out on a Saturday morning at 11am? Who knows. The game airs live on ESPN2 this year.
Even if a few empty seats were shown, no big deal. It would not be the first sporting event with tickets unsold at the BOK Center. It would not be the last.
Coach Sutton is on board ... kind of.
"Keep our home series going because I think it is a great home game for both programs," he said. "You need an attractive game every other year, but play them twice a year. Play them once on the home campus at whoever's hosting that year and once downtown. Play one in the early part of the year and one in January or February."
Not bad, but how about cranking up the voltage. Let's play a high stakes game. Play the first game at the BOK Center. Whoever wins gets the second meeting of the season on their home court.
"I'm not sure Doug (Wojcik) would agree with that, especially if one program got on a roll and won 10 or 12 games in a row like ORU did in the early '70s and like Tulsa did in the late '70s and early '80s. It's a great rivalry. I've always enjoyed that game and its fun to be a part of."
Yes it is.
Oral Roberts schedule is a bit herky-jerky this year. Their first conference game is against Western Illinois on Dec. 2. They break from conference play to visit OU and Missouri for some Big 12 hospitality.
They restart Summit League play before halting for a trip to Akron on Jan. 3.
The real challenge comes Feb. 19 at the end of conference play. They are scheduled for another ESPN BracketBuster game. No team, venue or time is assigned in advance.
"Some people would look at it as a distraction right in the middle of the conference race," Sutton said. The chance to play the likes of Utah State and Creighton outweigh the schedule snafu. Also, it is another chance to gain the national spotlight for the players, school and city.
"For a program like ours that is very important to be able to showcase your program."
Again, who can argue with the most tenured coach in our region?
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