Why Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham is no solo act for Cowboys: 'My teammates don’t get enough credit'
STILLWATER — Oklahoma State superstar Cade Cunningham saw a second Kansas defender closing in and made the right choice to pass away.
Quickly, a second pass found Isaac Likekele on the low block, but his layup was no good. A narrative emerged on the ESPN broadcast.
“I've said this a couple times. I’ll say it again,” analyst Fran Fraschilla said nearly a month ago. “Next year, he’s going to give the ball up to NBA players who can do something with it in short role or kickouts for open 3s.”
Throughout the season, the outside perception of the Cowboys is they are Cunningham and a group of mostly nobodies. He’s an elite player bound for likely the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and the rest of the Cowboys are just bodies to fill the other four spots on the floor.
But that belief is wrong.
“I know how much attention I bring,” Cunningham said. “I always feel like my teammates don’t get enough credit for what they do on the court and in the locker room. I know that they’re appreciative of me, but maybe I can do a better job of letting them know how much I appreciate them, just because they bring it every day and they’ve made me so much better throughout the year.”
As the red-hot Cowboys embark on their final regular season road trip with a gauntlet at No. 2-ranked Baylor on Thursday and at No. 6-ranked West Virginia on Saturday, the perception of Cade and the other guys has fallen flat.
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OSU has found various ways to win in Big 12 play, especially during their current five-game winning streak.
Cunningham remains the star — his 40-point explosion Saturday in Bedlam was crucial — and he aims to get others involved. It’s possible a few of his teammates will play in the NBA someday, but the grit and grind of the Cowboys has not faltered.
“I like to think we have a really good team,” Boynton said. “I know Cade gets all the hype, and he deserves it, because he’s a great, great player, but we’ve got some other guys flying under the radar that are having some really good years.”
The Cowboys have won without Cunningham.
He fouled out with 2:44 remaining in overtime on Jan. 2 at Texas Tech. OSU was up by two at the time. The Cowboys closed out the game for an 82-77 win.
OSU won at Iowa State on Jan. 25 without Cunningham, who missed his second straight game due to COVID-19 protocols.
But the biggest growth started two days before that. OSU hosted Baylor without Cunningham and freshman Rondel Walker in the first game after a week-long shutdown.
In the opening half, the Cowboys built a nine-point lead, which was the largest at that point in the season against the Bears. OSU even led in the second half until it ran out of gas in the 81-66 loss.
“That’s been something that we’ve tried to build on since he’s been back and I think our guys for the most part have learned how the parts work a little bit better,” Boynton said.
In the two games without Cunningham entirely, forwards Kalib Boone and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe emerged, allowing Boynton to shift his lineups more.
Since OSU’s shutdown, Boone has averaged 13.2 points and 7.5 rebounds. Moncrieffe has averaged 11.1 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Other players have had big moments, too.
Walker hit big shots and delivered big steals. Avery Anderson III — arguably OSU’s most-improved player — has shined on both ends of the floor.
“It’s really no surprise to us that our team did well without (Cunningham) when he was with COVID,” Walker said. “That just shows how deep our team is yet again. For him to be our leading contributor and we still go out there and make a key run without him, that just means how good of a team we are.”
That was certainly true on Feb. 22 in the rematch against Texas Tech.
Cunningham picked up his fourth foul with 16:49 remaining and was forced to the bench. The Cowboys were in a tailspin offensively, falling behind by 11 shortly after. They hadn’t made a field goal and that extended until the 13:26 mark when Keylan Boone broke out of his long slump with a 3-pointer.
When Cunningham returned to the game nearly 6 minutes later, OSU had the lead.
The other guys weren’t so bad.
“He’s a great player,” said OSU senior Bryce Williams, who delivered in the Bedlam sweep with two big scoring runs and strong defense. “Not to take anything from my guy, but we’re a great team at the end of the day. We have all the pieces, we have all the playmakers, we have all the finishers, all the shooters.
“I feel like we can play with whoever, but Cade just takes the pressure off the rest of us.”
Heading into the Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, OSU is a dangerous team.
Cunningham is the biggest reason. But his teammates are making their own case to be noticed.
“We have so many different weapons,” Cunningham said. “If we can get everybody clicking at once, I think we’ll be super deadly.
“But the fact that we always find a way to compete just because we have a bunch of guys that just go out there and hoop, I think that says a lot about us and about Coach Mike for giving us all that type of confidence.”
Jacob Unruh covers college sports for The Oklahoman. You can send your story ideas to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jacobunruh. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.