Watching Cade Cunningham this season, it’s clear he’s a different player.
The freshman is not particularly flashy for a projected top-5 NBA draft pick.
Cunningham simply does his job and gets everyone else involved in the process. He leads the Big 12 with 17.8 points per game on 45% shooting, dishes out 3.8 assists, grabs 6.2 rebounds, and makes the right play at crucial moments.
Nailing a game-winning three-pointer with a defender in his face against Wichita State. Using his 6’8” size to block a shot against Kansas late in the second half, then passing the ball ahead for a fast-break bucket to snag a win.
Still, it’s hard to appreciate Cunningham’s true impact on Oklahoma State until he’s not there. The Cowboys found out just how valuable Cunningham is in an 81-66 loss to Baylor.
Taking on the No. 2 team in the country after more than a week off due to COVID-19 protocols is a tough draw. Having to play the game with Cunningham on the sideline as part of COVID-19 protocols?
Not ideal at all.
The Cowboys, however, came out ready to play. Oklahoma State outrebounded Baylor 23-12 in the first half and took advantage of missed shots and turnovers to grab a 36-32 halftime lead.
Oklahoma State, however, was not able to significantly increase the lead as Baylor made adjustments. Instead, the Bears went on a 19-1 run about midway through the second half. Turnovers and three consecutive 3s from junior guard Jared Butler put the Cowboys in a 67-51 hole.
That stretch, in particular, showed just how much Cade Cunningham’s absence hurt. Oklahoma State rushed through the offense and forced shots when patience and vision were needed to find the best option.
Those things become the focal point with Cunningham on the floor. Oklahoma State needed a calming presence to help the team regroup and get back to what worked earlier.
Junior guard Isaac Likele clearly missed his teammate, too. Likele went 1-of-8 shooting while forcing shots and dealing with double teams. He did spread the ball with seven assists.
Sophomore forward Kalib Boone finished with 21 points and seven rebounds while freshman forward Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
It’s not guaranteed that Oklahoma State would have beaten Baylor with Cunningham on the floor. However, the Cowboys showed a young roster can compete without him.
A few nights later, Oklahoma State played without Cunningham again and beat an Iowa State team missing four starters. Moncrieffe posted another double-double with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Boone chipped in 15 points and key reserve freshman guard Rondel Walker scored 20 points in his return from an injury.
Still, the Cowboys need Cunningham’s passing, scoring, patience, vision, and leadership to beat the top teams in the Big 12.
Cunningham has accomplished a lot in just a few months in Stillwater during, most likely, his only college season. He was named pre-season Freshman of the Year by multiple organizations and appeared on several First-Team All-American lists. Now, Cunningham is one of 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, which is given to the nation’s top point guard.
He also has Oklahoma State positioned for its first NCAA Tournament bid during Mike Boynton’s four years as head coach, despite a potential post-season ban.
If the appeal process continues throughout the entire season, the Cowboys, who are tied with Texas Tech and Kansas for No. 5 in the Big 12 standings (4-4), could end up playing in Indiana come March.
The key is the guidance Cunningham provides to a young, promising team.
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