There were moments during Cade Cunningham‘s career-best 40-point effort in Oklahoma State‘s 94-90 overtime win at No. 7 Oklahoma — in the season’s first installment of the Bedlam Rivalry — when he looked like the most unstoppable player in America.
Perhaps not the Wooden Award winner; that honor will likely go to Iowa’s Luka Garza, Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu or another veteran. Cunningham could even lose the Big 12 player of the year award to someone such as Baylor star Jared Butler.
On Saturday, however, against a top-10 team, Cunningham — the projected No. 1 pick in ESPN.com’s latest NBA mock draft — reached a zone that no player had matched this season. Sure, others have put up big numbers, but not with the rhythm, versatility and poise that the 6-foot-8 guard — the first freshman to score 40 points this season — displayed in the victory. It would not have mattered who tried to stop Cunningham, who added 11 rebounds and made 13 of 14 free throw attempts.
He made shots off pump fakes. A steal — one of his three in the contest — led to a bucket in transition in the first half. He made NBA-range 3-pointers. He also turned a miss into an easy putback when he followed his shot through traffic before halftime.
And that all unfolded prior to overtime. In the extra period, Cunningham raced the length of the floor, drove right and hit a floater over three Sooners on the go-ahead shot to give his team an 85-84 lead. Late free throws sealed the win for the Cowboys.
It was a performance that fueled the idea that Oklahoma State, an 8-seed in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology entering the game, could evolve into a serious threat in the NCAA tournament. It could do what another surprising contender pulled off a decade ago: Before he led UConn to a Big East tournament title and the national championship in 2011, Kemba Walker scored 34 points in a three-point loss to a Notre Dame team that secured a 2-seed on Selection Sunday that year. Although it was a losing effort in the Huskies’ regular-season finale, it also was a billboard for Walker’s potential.
We’ve witnessed a comparable finish for Cunningham, who has scored 15, 21, 20 and 40 points during his team’s four-game winning streak, which the Cowboys can extend with another triumph over Oklahoma — this time in Stillwater — in the second chapter of Bedlam on Monday.
Take a look at some of the parallels between Oklahoma State phenom Cade Cunningham and Luka Doncic.
At this point, the only entity that could stop the Cade Cunningham show is the NCAA. And that’s the scary part.
When the NCAA hit Oklahoma State with a postseason ban last summer for recruiting violations committed by a former assistant coach — not on Mike Boynton’s staff — Cunningham weighed his options before eventually deciding to keep his commitment to play for Oklahoma State, where his brother is an assistant coach.
The school is waiting, however, on the NCAA to make a ruling on its appeal of that decision. If that verdict does not arrive prior to the NCAA tournament, Oklahoma State will be eligible to compete. The chaos of the pandemic has caused major delays for NCAA rulings, which could work in Oklahoma State’s favor.
Ending the team’s dreams of making a run in the NCAA tourney days before Selection Sunday would be a cruel move. But it’s still possible.
And that would be unfair to everyone involved. A decision earlier this week, however, might have provided a reason for optimism. The NCAA announced that South Carolina had been put on probation for the activities of Lamont Evans, who allegedly accepted bribes while a member of the Gamecocks’ staff. Oklahoma State’s postseason ban also is tied to Evans, who was accused of similar violations at that school.
It wouldn’t make much sense for the NCAA to give one school probation and another school a postseason ban for similar violations committed 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 shaping up to be a must-see program that has earned the right to compete for a national championship.
And if they can get past the NCAA, the rest of the field should watch out. Because Cunningham is playing like a young star who doesn’t want this season to end anytime soon.