OSU basketball: Cade Cunningham, Isaac Likekele combination crucial to Cowboys
STILLWATER — Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton has tinkered with point guard rotations through around 30 practices this fall.
One practice might feature freshman star Cade Cunningham and leader Isaac Likekele in the frontcourt. Reserve point guard Avery Anderson III is on the opposite team.
The next day, Boynton could have Cunningham and Anderson together opposite Likelele. Boynton has even put all three on the floor together, which was a disaster for the opposing squad.
Boynton sometimes goes as far as designating a primary ballhandler. Oftentimes, he just lets them play and figure it out.
It’s a challenge that’s aiding the growth of the Cowboys’ most crucial position.
“I really enjoy watching the three of them help each other get better,” Boynton said.
As the Cowboys prepare to open their most anticipated season during Boynton’s tenure with a 3 p.m. tipoff at Texas-Arlington on Wednesday, point guards will be in the spotlight. And it’s the two primary ballhandlers from Arlington — Cunningham and Likekele — who will get the attention.
“It's a guard’s game,” Boynton said. “I'll take it to the bank. If you line up any team in the country and tell me I can have their backcourt or mine collectively, I’ll take ours.”
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Cunningham enters the picture as the possible No. 1-overall NBA draft pick next year. Likekele is the returning point guard and unquestioned leader of the team.
For the better part of a year, the question was always how both could operate together on the floor. How well they mesh might just be the key to the Cowboys’ season.
Likekele is a driving force labeled as a “linebacker playing point guard” with his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame by ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla. Likekele’s shooting has lacked in his first two seasons, but he’s relentless attacking the basket and defending.
Cunningham is a smooth operator expected to primarily handle the basketball. He’s a 6-8 point guard capable of doing just about everything.
“I think that’s the best thing about us is we have a diverse set of abilities,” Cunningham said. “We just have so many different things that are going well for us that I feel like if we can get it all together we’ll be really scary.”
The two have experience playing together before this season.
Both helped USA Basketball win the gold medal at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup. Cunningham started all seven games while Likekele was a breakout star off the bench.
They then trained together a lot in Arlington this offseason during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown in the spring.
“It was big-time,” Likekele said. “My guy’s a hard worker and then on top of that. He’s my dog. It’s fun having people you enjoy to play with.”
Boynton intends to deploy both in different ways.
He said he wants both to combine for 12-15 rebounds per game to help make up for the lack of depth in post. If either gets the rebound, he can immediately push. OSU will likely play faster as a result.
Boynton expects both to be menaces on defense. On offense, either can handle the low post, posting up with their large frames. Boynton said he expects to at times play a five-guard set, which could put Cunningham at center.
Still, even in that set all eyes will be on Cunningham and Likekele.
They’re the leaders. They’ll make the Cowboys go.
“It’s going to really mix teams up and they’re not really going to know how to match up against us,” Likekele said.