INDIANAPOLIS — The code of conduct at Oral Roberts University acknowledges that opinions vary among Christians about dancing.
“However,” the handbook states, “the following official University policy has been established: social dancing is not permitted on campus.”
But several hundred miles away from the Tulsa, Oklahoma, campus whose landmark is a 60-foot high pair of praying hands, its basketball team is dancing like it has never danced before, dancing right into next week’s Sweet 16 and very much the Cinderella story of the biggest dance of all.
Oral Roberts, a school of 2,800 undergrads founded by one of America’s first televangelists whose basketball program is best known for launching Bill Self’s head coaching career, became just the second No. 15 seed ever in the men’s NCAA Tournament to reach the second weekend. To do it, the Golden Eagles took down Ohio State and Florida, two of the true behemoths in college athletics, clawing their way to a pair of three-point wins.
For a team that was the No. 4 seed in the Summit League tournament a couple weeks ago, that isn’t just improbable — it’s a longshot so incalculable it would only register above zero because this is a tournament crazy enough that it can happen every now and then.
“Honest to goodness I told the guys all year that not only are we going to win the conference tournament, but we’re going to win multiple games in the NCAA,” Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills said. “We talk about winning in March way back in November. These are the things that have to happen in order to win in March, and there’s a graphic we show once a week: This is what it takes and there’s times in practice where one of them is taking care of the ball and I’ll ask, ‘Have you ever been to March Madness? Do you understand you can’t make that turnover?’
“Now they’re going to have a response, so that’s pretty cool. That’s what you want.”
WHAT AND WHO IS ORAL ROBERTS? Meet the NCAA Tournament’s Cinderella team and school
OPINION: Why Arkansas men’s coach Eric Musselman should stay in Indiana
TEXAS TECH: Final play in loss puts Chris Beard’s play-calling in spotlight
OPINION: Syracuse in the zone and the Sweet 16. It’s the Jim Boeheim way.
It’s one thing to say that to a group of players in the middle of a two-hour practice in November, it’s another when the bracket comes out and the reward for winning an automatic bid is playing an Ohio State team with a roster full of guys who would have never answered a recruiting call from Oral Roberts.
Then, once you somehow make that miracle happen as a handful of teams have done in the history of this tournament, how do you come back and keep that edge 48 hours after becoming America’s darling? There’s a reason why, among the handful of No. 15 seeds that won first-round games, only the Florida Gulf Coast phenomenon in 2013 had previously survived to the second week.
And in this case, it wasn’t like Oral Roberts got to play some mid-major that also pulled a first-round upset. This was the Florida Gators of the mighty SEC, a team with a tournament pedigree and an NBA prospect.
Despite all that, Oral Roberts stunned us again.
“As I told the guys, we’re not going to let someone put a number in front of our name and tell us that’s our worth, our value,” Mills said. “We’re not capitulating to anybody here and after we won against Ohio State, I told them, ‘You’ve got the bus ride back to answer text messages, and obviously there’s some media obligations, but this needs to get over with quick.’”
Now, Oral Roberts will have to figure out how to deal with another week of unprecedented attention, some of which may not be entirely flattering when it comes to the university itself.
Since its founding in 1963, the school has been a lightning rod for controversy. In January of 1987, Oral Roberts locked himself in a prayer tower on campus and told his followers he’d be called home by God if he didn’t raise $8 million by March. In the end, he overachieved like the basketball team that would later represent him, raising over $9 million.
Twenty years later, allegations of financial impropriety forced his son Richard Roberts, who had taken over from his father as president of the university, into a messy resignation.
In more recent years, stories have popped up alleging discrimination against students who identify as LGBTQ — Oral Roberts has a strict code of conduct that bans “any homosexual behavior and premarital sex” — including one in 2018 in which a former student said he was subject to conversion therapy attempts.
That doesn’t necessarily have much to do with a giant-killing basketball team that will face Arkansas in the Sweet 16, but the people representing Oral Roberts aren’t going to run from it. In fact, fresh off scoring 28 points against Florida, Oral Roberts forward Kevin Obanor said that it was important for a “school that glorifies God” to get this star turn in March.
“It deserves to be on a higher pedestal,” he said.
But Oral Roberts only deserves that because it won, which is the most beautiful thing about the tournament. Whether you’re a flagship campus in one of America’s biggest states or a tiny Evangelical school with a narrowly focused mission, you get your chance here.
In the NCAA Tournament, everyone can dance, even if the school might frown upon it.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.