Tramel: Why Cade Cunningham's quick shot was such a bad decision in Oklahoma State's loss at TCU
Cade Cunningham has been so good in the clutch this season, it seems somehow sideways to question his decision-making when things go wrong.
But Cunningham’s play in the final 15 seconds of OSU’s 81-78 loss to Texas Christian on Wednesday night was so egregious, it bears explanation.
The Cowboys led 78-76 with 20 seconds left, but Mike Miles scored on a driving layup -- off another major mistake -- with 17.8 seconds left. Cunningham took the inbounds pass, hurried the ball upcourt and put up a driving shot in the paint against 6-foot-5 Horned Frog Taryn Todd. With 11 seconds left in the game.
The ball bounced off the rim. TCU grabbed the rebound, got in a hurry itself and Jaedon LeDee muscled in a layup with 2.2 seconds while drawing a foul from Cowboy Avery Anderson.
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“We weren’t calling a timeout,” said OSU freshman Rondel Walker. “He was probably thinking, get a quick one, if not, miss, get a quick stop and come back.
“We’ll live with those shots. We’ll live with him making plays down the stretch.”
That’s how everyone who cares about Cowboy basketball has to feel during this season in which Cunningham has lived up to the hype as college basketball’s best recruit of 2020. Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 point guard who has shined down the stretch of many OSU games, remains the consensus pick to be selected first overall in the 2021 NBA Draft.
But it was a terrible play by Cunningham, simply because of mathematics.
Remember the NFC Championship Game, when Packer coach Matt LaFleur chose to kick a field goal, trailing 31-23, when facing 4th-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 8-yard line with a little more than two minutes left? Green Bay lost 31-26. The analytics crowd has figured that the Packers had a 10.8 percent chance of winning had LaFleur given quarterback Aaron Rodgers a chance on fourth down, but only a 7.8 percent chance of winning by trying the field goal.
That’s not a significant difference.
We can do the same with Cunningham’s decision to shoot with plenty of time left on the clock.
Almost every team in America, every level, plays for the last shot in the situation in which the Cowboys found themselves in Fort Worth. And here’s why.
Tie game, late, you figure overtime is a 50-50 proposition, although in this case, OSU clearly was considered the better team, so maybe you give the Cowboys a 52-48 edge.
So whatever chance you give OSU of scoring on the last possession adds to the 52 percent. The Cowboys had been scoring well -- offense was not the problem vs. the Horned Frogs. OSU was shooting 50 percent from the field, and while the Cowboys hadn’t shot well from the foul line (22 of 32), they didn’t need to make two. One, with a second or two left in the game, would have won it.
Still, when you play for a last shot, you limit your offense. If you play for a last shot, a good one might not materialize in the last seconds. So I’d estimate OSU’s chances of scoring on a last-second shot somewhere between 30-40 percent. Not great.
But add 35 percent to the 50/52 percent chance of overtime, and OSU was looking at an 85/87 percent chance of winning when Cunningham crossed midcourt. So long as he didn’t shoot too early.
Cunningham shot too early. Much too early.
So early, that when TCU grabbed the rebound with 11 seconds left, the odds completely flipped. In overtime, the Frogs would have had a 48/50 percent chance of winning. Their chances of scoring in the final 10 seconds were about the same as OSU -- the Frogs had made 29 of 60 shots at that point, plus were dominating the rebounding, having outscored the Cowboys 15-6 in second-chance points.
So let’s also give TCU a 35 percent chance of scoring. Suddenly, the Frogs’ chances of winning went all the way to 83/85 percent.
That’s why you play for the last shot.
If you’re one or two points down, no. But if it’s all square, it’s an awful decision to shoot quickly.
OSU coach Mike Boynton said Cunningham’s hurried play was not the design and he said Cunningham will learn from the decision.
“He thought he had an opening,” Boynton said. “He thought he could get all the way to the rim.”
Two other decisions cost OSU.
After Bryce Williams made the second of two foul shots with 25.6 left to give the Cowboys a 78-76 lead, OSU applied defensive pressure. Anderson, a premium defender, guarded Miles immediately on the inbounds pass. Trouble was, that made Anderson vulnerable to a blind screen. Sure enough, LeDee picked off Anderson at midcourt, leaving center Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe to chase Miles. Miles quickly got to the rim unencumbered for the layup.
A more understandable move was Boynton’s decision to have Cunningham inbound the ball with 26.6 seconds left and OSU up 77-76. Cunningham is OSU’s most reliable foul shooter, but Boynton pointed out that Cunningham also is the best passer and decision-maker. So Cunningham inbounded to Williams, who made just one of the two foul shots a couple of seconds later.
But nothing compares to Cunningham’s decision to take a shot with 11 seconds left in a tie game. When the ball left his hands, the Cowboys’ fortunes reversed, and now OSU has been swept by TCU, which hopefully won’t cost the Cowboys an NCAA Tournament berth but could move OSU into a seed that is not nearly as advantageous as it could have been.