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OSU basketball: How work brought together stellar signing class — and why even harder work remains

Cade Cunningham, left, Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe, center, and Rondel Walker help make up what might be the best signing class in Oklahoma State basketball history. But coach Mike Boynton said there is plenty of work ahead if the Cowboys want to return to national power status. [AP AND OKLAHOMAN PHOTOS]
Cade Cunningham, left, Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe, center, and Rondel Walker help make up what might be the best signing class in Oklahoma State basketball history. But coach Mike Boynton said there is plenty of work ahead if the Cowboys want to return to national power status. [AP AND OKLAHOMAN PHOTOS]

STILLWATER — Back during his first season as Oklahoma State’s head coach, Mike Boynton started talking one night after a disappointing loss about what it would take to be nationally competitive again.

He said the Cowboys needed better talent. Said, too, he was confident the men’s basketball program could get that talent.

“Why,” a reporter asked, “do you think recruits are going to buy into this?”

It was a legit question seeing as how the Cowboys were bound for the bottom half of the Big 12, and until a late charge, they weren't even expected to make the NIT, much less the NCAA Tournament. OSU seemed, shall we say, a less-than-desirable spot for blue-chip players.

But Boynton wasn’t put off by the query.

“Because,” he answered, “we’re going to work at it, and we believe work wins.”

Two years later, the work has paid off. Boynton and Co. have landed perhaps the best signing class in program history, headlined by Cade Cunningham, the top player in the country, and strengthened by two — or three, depending on what recruiting rankings you believe — other top-150 players.

The talent is immense.

Ditto for the promise; Cowboy fans are giddy about finally returning to the glory days.

But this team isn’t there yet. And it’s not just because the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered everything, making it anyone’s guess when these new Cowboys will even be able to gather together on campus.

Right now, the Cowboys are all hype and hope.

How do they go from promise to prominence?

I don’t say this to rain on the orange-and-black parade. This is an amazing group joining Isaac Likekele, Yor Anei, Chris Harris Jr., Avery Anderson III and the Boone twins. They are cause for celebration.

But Cowboy fans don’t have to look far in the rearview mirror to see sky-high promise doing a regular-season nose dive. In 2005, OSU had what many believed was the top recruiting class in the nation. Gerald Green. Byron Eaton. Keith Brumbaugh. Roderick Flemings. Kenneth Cooper. Terrel Harris. All four- and five-star prospects.

Along with highly regarded junior-college players Jamaal Brown, Mario Boggan and Torre Johnson, the group was expected to usher in a new age of OSU dominance.

It never happened.

Neither Green (NBA) nor Brumbaugh (dismissed) ever played a game for the Cowboys, and while Eaton, Harris and Boggan became important pieces during that era, their class never became a force.

Not until Eaton and Harris were seniors — and James Anderson joined them — did the Cowboys make the NCAA Tournament again. It was a nice accomplishment, but no one thought making the tournament would be that bunch's crowning achievement.

It seems like this year’s class will be different. For starters, there’s no indication Cunningham will ditch college for the pros like Green did, but reports that another Green, Jalen, will bypass college and pull down a million dollars next year could make anyone think twice. But even if Cunningham plays every game next season, rousing success is no guarantee.

Boynton is well aware of that. As he talked with reporters Thursday morning via video conference, he acknowledged national rankings and social-media praise aren’t going to win any ball games.

“I tell those kids all the time, I’ll give them a couple days to let them enjoy the love and adoration our fans give to them,” he said. “At some point, that’s over.

“It’s time to get to work.”

Work is what Boynton promised in that post-game press conference a couple years ago, and that is how the Cowboy coaches locked down this recruiting class. But the work isn’t over. Not for the coaches. Not for the players.

“We certainly don’t think by any means it’ll be an easy transition,” Boynton said. “But we do think that the right kind of people put together with the same understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish will give us that ability to do that at some point in the near future.”

Truth be told, the hardest work remains — turning great individuals into a great team.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.

Related Photos
Orangeville Prep's Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe #11 in action against Hargrave Military Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Sunday, January 19, 2020, in Springfield, MA. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Orangeville Prep's Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe #11 in action against Hargrave Military Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Sunday, January 19, 2020, in Springfield, MA. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-14edc630a0634eebc345b045f28aaa5b.jpg" alt="Photo - Orangeville Prep's Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe #11 in action against Hargrave Military Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Sunday, January 19, 2020, in Springfield, MA. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)" title="Orangeville Prep's Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe #11 in action against Hargrave Military Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Sunday, January 19, 2020, in Springfield, MA. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)"><figcaption>Orangeville Prep's Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe #11 in action against Hargrave Military Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Sunday, January 19, 2020, in Springfield, MA. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-400734c137e5b61bd77b32824656e61d.jpg" alt="Photo - Rondel Walker, 5, attempts a three pointer during a boys basketball game between Putnam City West and Lawton Eisenhower High School in Oklahoma City on Friday February 9, 2018. JACKIE DOBSON/for The Oklahoman" title="Rondel Walker, 5, attempts a three pointer during a boys basketball game between Putnam City West and Lawton Eisenhower High School in Oklahoma City on Friday February 9, 2018. JACKIE DOBSON/for The Oklahoman"><figcaption>Rondel Walker, 5, attempts a three pointer during a boys basketball game between Putnam City West and Lawton Eisenhower High School in Oklahoma City on Friday February 9, 2018. JACKIE DOBSON/for The Oklahoman</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-dd3c9482725820f89fad6f5468fc5d17.jpg" alt="Photo - Orangeville Prep's Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe #11 in action against Hargrave Military Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Sunday, January 19, 2020, in Springfield, MA. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)" title="Orangeville Prep's Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe #11 in action against Hargrave Military Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Sunday, January 19, 2020, in Springfield, MA. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)"><figcaption>Orangeville Prep's Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe #11 in action against Hargrave Military Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Sunday, January 19, 2020, in Springfield, MA. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-bc8676c2bdf72995b09a60932275d1b5.jpg" alt="Photo - Cade Cunningham, left, Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe, center, and Rondel Walker help make up what might be the best signing class in Oklahoma State basketball history. But coach Mike Boynton said there is plenty of work ahead if the Cowboys want to return to national power status. [AP AND OKLAHOMAN PHOTOS] " title=" Cade Cunningham, left, Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe, center, and Rondel Walker help make up what might be the best signing class in Oklahoma State basketball history. But coach Mike Boynton said there is plenty of work ahead if the Cowboys want to return to national power status. [AP AND OKLAHOMAN PHOTOS] "><figcaption> Cade Cunningham, left, Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe, center, and Rondel Walker help make up what might be the best signing class in Oklahoma State basketball history. But coach Mike Boynton said there is plenty of work ahead if the Cowboys want to return to national power status. [AP AND OKLAHOMAN PHOTOS] </figcaption></figure>
Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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