Tramel: Should Cade Cunningham start taking over even earlier for Oklahoma State basketball?
Cade Cunningham pulled off his usual crunch-time heroics Saturday. No one was surprised.
A 3-point play off a floater. A 17-foot jumper. A running hook shot. A tiebreaking 18-foot jumper with 21 seconds left. Two foul shots that capped an 81-77 victory over Arkansas in Gallagher-Iba Arena. Eleven points in the final 5:46, a spree that started with OSU trailing by five.
In this renaissance season for Cowboy basketball, late flurries have become Cunningham’s calling card. Funny, considering that was one of the few questions about Cunningham’s game when he arrived last summer as the nation’s most ballyhooed recruit.
“Part of the knock on him, ‘can he take over as a scorer?’” OSU coach Mike Boynton said. “The answer was a resounding yes today.”
Cunningham has become the perfect teammate. Void of greed through most of the game, passing almost to a fault, then willing to impose his scoring ability with the game in the balance.
“I kind of gravitate toward the ball, especially in big moments,” Cunningham said. “I want to assert myself more. And my team, they do a really good job of finding me, making sure I’m allowed to do what I do.”
Cunningham is averaging 18.1 points a game, best in the Big 12, but Cunningham seems to save his high-volume scoring for the stretch run:
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• 15 points in the final 6½ minutes of an 83-78 victory over Oral Roberts;
• Nine points in the final 6:09 of a 77-76 loss to Texas Christian;
• 15 points in the final 10½ minutes of a 77-74 loss to Texas;
• Eight points in the final 8:41 of regulation in an 82-77 overtime win at Texas Tech.
Plus, of course, the tie-breaking 3-pointer with 11 seconds left in a 67-64 win at Wichita State.
“This guy is just a walking bucket when he wants to be,” said teammate Kalib Boone. “As a team, we know that. When he’s ready to go off, one of those things, you gotta do your part … when he’s hot, he’s hot.”
All of which raises a question. Might the Cowboys be better-served if Cunningham went into takeover mode a few minutes earlier? It might save Boynton and OSU fans a few Rolaids.
“You can tell the confidence in his scoring mindset has definitely come a long way,” Boynton said. “We need him to be more assertive earlier in games, but that’s not really who he is.”
Nope, it’s not. Cunningham clearly enjoys the role of facilitator, whether he’s playing point guard or not. The point is shared also by Avery Anderson and Isaac Likekele, but the offense often ends up running through Cunningham. He’s not an innocent bystander, even when the shots are rare.
“I kind of just feel out the game,” Cunningham said. “I don’t predetermine when it’s going to happen. Kind of a feel thing. Seeing matchups, things like that.”
Cunningham said he felt the Cowboys had stagnated against Arkansas, but that’s not really true. When Cunningham got cooking, OSU had scored on three of its previous four possessions. It’s just that the Razorbacks led 69-64, and the pressure was mounting.
“Certainly he’s our best player,” Boynton said. “One of the best players in the country. So when we get in those situations, he’s going to be probably option 1, not necessarily to shoot, but let’s make a play.”
It’s not like Cunningham took every shot down the stretch. His shots or foul shots accounted for seven possessions in the final six minutes; his teammates combined for six. That seems a solid distribution in crunch time.
“From game to game, you adjust on how you think he’s going to be guarded,” Boynton said. “You don’t put him out there and ask him to take a shot. That’s really not who he is.”
Until the game is on the line. Then that’s exactly who Cade Cunningham is, and OSU basketball reaps the rewards.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.