If you can become a program legend before ever playing a game at your school, Cade Cunningham might have just pulled it off.
Oklahoma State fans are full-blown elated right now. No fan base in college sports is having a better start to its week than Cowboy basketball backers.
The No. 1-rated recruit in 2020 announced Monday that he would not swerve off the path. He's going to stay at Oklahoma State and play for Mike Boynton next season. The NCAA's heavy-handed sanctions on the Cowboys' men's basketball program will not deter him. The route Cunningham will take to potentially being the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft will have its primary thoroughfare established in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Cunningham is doing this despite the ever-looming threat of a 2021 postseason ban, which was levied by the NCAA against his school earlier this month. The odds of Oklahoma State getting that controversial verdict overturned on appeal later this year are not great.
Yet that's not the only thing Cunningham looked past when making his decision to remain a Cowboy, which is what makes his resolve all the more newsworthy and praiseworthy. Cunningham's doing this despite having options to play at literally any other school of his choice, had he wanted, and to play in the postseason and therefore compete for a national championship.
Kentucky was ready, waiting and thirsty for Cunningham to turn heel. Had he done it, UK would have been the preseason No. 1 team in college basketball in the minds of many. Didn't happen.
Cunningham's also staying firm on his commitment despite our COVID-19 national crisis, which still permeates as a threat to sports schedules and championships everywhere, college basketball included.
Loyalty won out.
Loyalty's often left at the door in college athletics. The reasons for that are myriad, and plenty of them are pragmatic, but it's still refreshing as hell to see an 18-year-old make such an adult decision. He stuck to his word and will follow through. What a concept. Cunningham would not have been criticized if he decided to say see ya to Oklahoma State and pursued professional opportunities (factoring in salary and endorsements, Cunningham almost definitely stood to make more than a million dollars had he chosen the G League route) or head east to Lexington, Kentucky. If anything, sports fans and sports pundits have been largely conditioned for cynical encouragement when it comes to college-athlete empowerment.
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If there are better options, take them; go get the bag, so many champion.
But for Cunningham, Oklahoma State is the better option even if it's not the "best" option to those viewing his situation from the outside. On Monday he made the move he thought principal for himself and in doing so dosed college basketball some much needed positive news. That hasn't been in abundance since mid-March, at which point the NCAA Tournament was canceled for the first time in its history.
Cunningham's brother, Cannen, being on Mike Boynton's staff surely plays a significant role, too.
On Boynton: he's to be commended for how he's handled the entirety of Oklahoma State's situation, basically since he got the job. It was Boynton who first saw Cunningham and recruited him -- before any other school -- when Boynton was fresh on the job as an assistant in 2016. Then Brad Underwood left for Illinois after a season, Boynton was the shock hire in 2017 and within months was running a program that had a rogue assistant arrested in the FBI scandal. When OSU was sideswiped by the severities of its numerous sanctions on June 5, one of the biggest questions that emanated from the devastation was, "What about Cade now?"
Boynton was vocal in his support of whatever decision his star would-be-could-be player would make. If it meant leaving, so be it. But that spoke to the true connection Boynton already had with Cunningham and his family. He never fretted because he knew the value of their relationship was already deeper than any one potential season at Oklahoma State could define.
In the end, that relationship's value and inherit trust wound up being what kept Cunningham in Stillwater.
Oklahoma State should boast the most watchable, irresistible talent in college basketball next season. That's never before been true in the sport. That's how good Cunningham is. He's a 6-foot-7 player who's labeled as a point guard. Cunningham isn't so much position-less as he's position-all. If the season can start and finish as scheduled -- and we are still a long way from even that being legitimate -- Cunningham's college career will likely wrap up in the middle of March after he's logged anywhere from 25 to 30 games in a Cowboys uniform.
He's not Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd or Daishen Nix -- he's better than all of those guys (who ignored college) and should be picked ahead them a year from now. In fact, Cunningham's probably the best pro prospect in the 2020 and 2021 drafts. He's favoring not just college basketball over all other opportunities, he's favoring college basketball at an unusual destination and without assurance of the one thing that helps college athletes more than any other: the NCAA Tournament.
We've been conditioned to accept transfer numbers in the high-high hundreds. We've grown uncomfortably accustomed to seeing dozens of players leave a year or two early for the NBA despite not being draftable. And recently, college basketball has braced for the five-star guys who are bypassing college altogether. Cunningham is a foil to all those archetypes, and he's exactly the kind of freshman one-and-done superstar the NCAA should be grateful for -- even as it deliberates once more whether or not to keep him out of the biggest event in college sports nine months from now.
I wonder if the NCAA, upon appeal, can find itself to be as mature in its decision as Cunningham was in his.