Back in the preseason, Oklahoma State men’s basketball coach Mike Boynton had his team do what it did every preseason: practice cutting down nets. Every player went up on the ladder with scissors and snipped a piece of the net.
“There was actually a vision,” Likekele said. “I don’t know how to explain it, it was a different feeling this year. … Coming in this year, all one through 15 had the same belief.”
“I believe in the law of attraction,” Boynton said. “You gotta believe something can happen and you gotta see yourself do it before you can put it into action. I wanted to set a tone with this team pretty early about what I expected us to be capable of doing. And then we went to work … and here we are.”
Oklahoma State continued its run as one of the hottest teams in the country, winning eight of its past nine games and entering Saturday fighting for a Big 12 tournament championship and potentially a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Cowboys had fallen short against Baylor in their two previous meetings this season, the first without Cunningham and the second without Likekele. With both players in the fold Friday in Kansas City, Missouri, Boynton finally had a full complement of players ready to take on the Bears.
Cunningham, the projected No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft, showed why he’s such a sought-after talent at the next level. He finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists, with 20 of those points coming in the second half.
“He’s the best player in the country,” Boynton said. “I don’t think it’s close.”
After the game, Baylor players expressed their frustrations about their defensive breakdowns against Cunningham and his teammates. MaCio Teague said Cunningham got “free” too often.
“They scored like 80-something on us,” he said after the game. ” [We have] bigger problems than shooting.”
Mark Vital said he wanted Davion Mitchell to have the defensive assignment on Cunningham down the stretch, suggesting he might have disagreed with the rotations late in the game. And Baylor coach Scott Drew said his team needs more practices, something they’ve lacked since their three-week pause, so the Bears can “get back to being elite” on defense.
Still, he’s not convinced any team would have had answers for the projected No. 1 pick.
“Cade’s one of those guys where you can do everything well and he still gets a bucket,” Drew said.
Avery Anderson, with 20 points, was a major factor alongside Cunningham, and two other players scored in double figures. The Cowboys also locked in on the defensive end, holding Baylor to one of its least efficient offensive outings of the season. Drew’s team shot just 6-for-28 from behind the arc, their worst shooting effort since a Jan. 2 win over Iowa State.
“I hope we continue to dispel this notion that we’re Cade and a bunch of, like, puppets out there,” Boynton said.
There are few teams in the country playing better right now than Oklahoma State, and barring a stunning turn of events from the NCAA in the next 48 hours, the Cowboys will be eligible to play in the NCAA tournament. They were given a one-year postseason ban in the summer, but they appealed that decision and the NCAA has yet to respond to that appeal.
Assuming they’re playing next week, the Cowboys are a team nobody will want to face.
“I think [it’s] our togetherness as a unit,” Cunningham said of the team’s recent play. “Everybody’s stepping up. Everybody’s trying to find ways to perfect that role, whatever that is. The staff giving us great game plans and just us buying into those, that’s really translated into winning more. Once we won a couple big games, our confidence has only grown. It’s through the roof now. It’s still going. We’re trying to see how far we can take this.”
But before that, Oklahoma State will face Texas in Saturday’s Big 12 title game.
“We didn’t come in here to win a semifinal game,” Boynton said. “We came here to try to win a championship.”
And if the Cowboys do, it might not be the only time this month they’re cutting down nets.
ESPN’s Myron Medcalf contributed to this report.