By JEFF LATZKE
TULSA — It's a new conference and the same mission for Scott Sutton and his Oral Roberts basketball team.
The Golden Eagles left the Summit League after winning their fifth regular-season championship, moving to the Southland Conference for the upcoming season. And no different than before, ORU will seek out respect with a handful of games against teams from bigger conferences and then buckle down to try and earn an automatic trip to the NCAA tournament.
"Our main goal is to get the NCAA tournament and win the conference, like it was in the Summit," said guard Warren Niles,
"To do that, we're going to have to play defense because we can score. We're just going to have to play defense and rebound."
Just like the Summit League, the Southland has never placed an at-large team on the NCAA bracket. Oral Roberts tried to make a case last season, setting a record for most wins during the school's Division I era with 27. It still wasn't enough, and a dreadful stretch during a 54-53 loss to Western Illinois in the conference tournament semifinals dumped the Golden Eagles into the NIT.
This season, it'll be the Southland's automatic bid that ORU is chasing as the preseason favorite in a poll of the league's coaches.
"We won't change anything up," said Sutton, who led Oral Roberts to the NCAA tournament in 2006 through 2008. "I think the league, just from the outside looking in, is probably more of an athletic league. The Summit, for the most part, you knew going in you were going to face some size. It seemed like everybody had a true center. This league, you'll probably face more 6-6, 6-7 athletes that are having to play the (center) position. But that's not going to change how we play."
Sutton said he expects to bus to a few more games, with the closer-to-home destinations that the Southland brings. But when weather dictated it, the Golden Eagles would even bus to the Dakotas in recent years.
"There is going to be an adjustment, just not knowing much about the programs and not knowing the players and as simple as not knowing the towns — where to stay, where to eat," Sutton said. "There's going to be some adjustments this year, but that hopefully won't affect our play on the court. It shouldn't."
Oral Roberts will open its season Friday night at UTEP and, as usual, play a challenging nonconference schedule that includes Arizona, Memphis and Oklahoma. There's also the return of the Mayor's Cup crosstown rivalry against Tulsa after a one-year hiatus.
Then it's on to a completely different set of conference opponents in the Southland.
"It's really like going and playing nine new nonconference games, for this year, because you don't know much about the teams besides what you'll see on tape. You certainly don't know much about the type of crowds they'll have and gym conditions," Sutton said.
The Golden Eagles are largely new, too, with Dominique Morrison — who ranked among the top 20 scorers in the nation last season — among the departures. Forward Damen Bell-Holter has dropped 20 pounds to return in better shape, and Warren Niles and Steven Roundtree also bring back starting experience.
"We have a lot of depth but with DoMo gone, somebody's going to have to pick up his scoring load," said Niles, the team's second-leading scorer last season at 12.1 points per game.
"But I think all of us are capable of doing that."
Morrison's spot will be occupied by Shawn Glover, who had to sit out last season after transferring from Utah.
"He's not Dominique, but he's an excellent scorer and scores in a lot of the same ways that Dominique did — the mid-range game, post-ups, I think he'll be able to get to the free-throw line a bunch, he can step out and hit the 3," Sutton said. "He's a good replacement for Dominique."
In all, the Golden Eagles have eight newcomers and will be counting on senior leaders to show them the ropes on how Oral Roberts does things — no matter the conference.
"We've had chances to win conference championships over the last eight years mainly because we've been a good road team. We've protected our home court for the most part, but we've gone on the road and we've been able to win some games," Sutton said. "Going into any league, you're going to have to do that."