There were moments during Cade Cunningham’s best 40-point performance in Oklahoma State’s 94-90 overtime win at No. 7 in Oklahoma – in the first episode of the Bedlam Rivalry of the season – when he was like the most unstoppable player in America looked.
Maybe not the wood award winner; That honor will likely go to Iowas Luka Garza, Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu or another veteran. Cunningham could even lose the Big 12 Player of the Year award to someone like Baylor star Jared Butler.
On Saturday, Cunningham reached – against the top 10 team – the planned number 1 in ESPN.com’s latest NBA mock draft – a zone that no player had reached this season. Sure, others have come up with big numbers, but not with the rhythm, versatility, and demeanor that the 6-foot-8 guard – the first freshman to score 40 points this season – has shown in victory. It wouldn’t have mattered who tried to stop Cunningham, who added 11 rebounds and made 13 of 14 free-throw attempts.
He shot from pump fakes. One theft – one of his three in the competition – resulted in a transition bucket in the first half. He made NBA range 3-pointers. He also turned a miss into a slight setback as he followed his shot through traffic before half-time.
And all before the overtime. In overtime, Cunningham raced the length of the floor, turned right, and hit a floater over three Sooners on the go to give his team an 85-84 lead. Late free throws sealed the win for the Cowboys.
It was an accomplishment that fueled the idea that Oklahoma State, an 8-seed in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology coming into play, could become a serious threat in the NCAA tournament. It could do what another surprising contender did a decade ago: before leading UConn to a Big East tournament title and national championship in 2011, Kemba Walker scored 34 points in a three-point loss to a Notre Dame team who secured a 2 -seed on selection Sunday of this year. While it was a defeat at the Huskies regular season finale, it was also a billboard for Walker’s potential.
We’ve seen a comparable result for Cunningham, who scored 15, 21, 20 and 40 points in four games during his team’s winning streak that the Cowboys can extend with another triumph over Oklahoma – this time in Stillwater – in the US second chapter from Bedlam on Monday.
Check out some parallels between the Cade Cunningham and Luka Doncic phenomenon in the state of Oklahoma.
At this point, the NCAA is the only entity that could stop the Cade Cunningham show. And that’s the scary part.
When the NCAA hit Oklahoma State last summer with a postseason ban on recruiting former assistant coaches – not Mike Boynton’s employees – Cunningham weighed his options before finally deciding to retire from Oklahoma State, where his brother is playing is an assistant coach.
However, the school is waiting for the NCAA to rule on their appeal against this decision. If that judgment is not received prior to the NCAA tournament, the State of Oklahoma will be eligible. The chaos of the pandemic has resulted in significant delays in NCAA decisions that could work in favor of the state of Oklahoma.
It would be a gruesome move to end the team’s dreams of running a run in the NCAA tournament days before Selection Sunday. But it is still possible.
And that would be unfair for everyone involved. However, a decision earlier this week may have given cause for optimism. The NCAA announced that South Carolina had been suspended for the activities of Lamont Evans, who allegedly took bribes while serving with Gamecocks. The Oklahoma state’s off-season ban is also tied to Evans, who has been charged with similar violations at this school.
It wouldn’t make much sense for the NCAA to put a school probation and another school off-season for similar violations by the same person. But the NCAA doesn’t always make sense.
The NCAA tournament is one of the most exciting sporting events in America. And Cunningham & Co. are emerging as a must-have program that has earned the right to compete for a national championship.
And if they get past the NCAA, the rest of the field should watch out. Because Cunningham plays like a young star who doesn’t want this season to end anytime soon.