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Kevin Schnepf, Published February 03 2012

Schnepf: Tonight's game could mark Fargo finale for Oral Roberts

Fargo

Scott Sutton calls it the toughest week of the season – taking his Oral Roberts men’s basketball team north to the Dakota Territory.

So it’s understandable if Sutton is relieved knowing Thursday night was his last trip to Brookings, S.D., and tonight will be his last appearance in Fargo.

Maybe.

Sutton, one of the most successful coaches in Summit League history, and ORU, one of the league’s most recognizable programs during the last 15 years, are leaving for the Southland Conference next season.

“We joke about it,” Sutton said, referring to warm-climate boys from Tulsa, Okla., venturing into the arctic tundra of the Dakotas for the last five years. “But I’m going to miss it. Our fans have enjoyed having the Dakota schools come into our league. They recognize good basketball. I will miss developing that relationship.

“And we’ve certainly developed a good rivalry with North Dakota State. They are passionate about their program. You don’t see that a lot in our conference. I enjoy going to places that support their teams.”

Even if it has meant winning only once in four tries at the Bison Sports Arena. It was in the 2008 regular-season finale when Sutton first visited the BSA. His team had already locked up a conference title while NDSU, finishing its transition to Division I and ineligible for any playoffs, was playing its final game of the year.

The Bison won 68-55.

“Their students got on me pretty good,” Sutton said. “Now normally, I don’t let that kind of thing get to me. But I do remember looking back at them and saying ‘Guys, we’re not that bad, we are 16-1 in the league.’ To be honest, I’m going to miss that.”

Ironically, Oral Roberts is leaving the Summit when it has never been stronger. According to a poll known as the RPI, the Summit ranks 12th among 33 D-I conferences. It ranks ahead of the WAC, the Horizon, the Big Sky and yes, the Southland – Oral Roberts’ future home that currently ranks 28th.

So why would Oral Roberts want to leave such a good thing?

“I think it makes sense for the athletic department as a whole … we will save tons of money in traveling costs,” said Sutton, referring to the fact that his school will change from being a league’s most southern school to a league’s most northern school. “You look across the board and I can understand why the administration is doing it. But it’s going to be hard to leave the Summit.”

And Sutton admits it will be hard leaving the rivalry with NDSU. Oral Roberts holds a 6-4 edge in the series, with an average winning score of 69-68.

The 41-year-old Sutton and 39-year-old Bison head coach Saul Phillips garner high respect for each other.

“I would’ve liked playing for a guy like that,” Phillips said of Sutton, who has become the all-time winningest coach at Oral Roberts with 224 victories. “I will miss that staff. Their values and our values line up very well.”

There is so much respect, Sutton said he would consider scheduling a home-and-home series with the Bison in the future. Coming off its first conference loss Thursday night in Brookings and depending what happens tonight in the BSA, Sutton may need some time to consider another trip this far north.

“My players and assistants probably think I’m crazy wanting to come back to Fargo, but I enjoy it,” Sutton said. “It may be a lot harder to win up here. But it’s always an exciting atmosphere. As a coach and a player, you would much rather play in that than an empty gymnasium.”

Sutton better get used to it. The average attendance in the Southland this season is 1,368. There will probably be nearly 5,000 fans screaming at Sutton tonight.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

or at kschnepf@forumcomm.com