Opinion: Cade Cunningham’s performance in Cowboys’ OT win shows why he’ll be No. 1 pick in NBA draft

No need to manufacture any drama about who’s going to be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. It’s going to be Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, who is not only the most talented prospect in his class but one who came to college determined to produce and lift a program, not just run out the clock until he becomes a multi-millionaire. 

The notion of an elite freshman dragging a team to a deep NCAA Tournament run has gone out of style in college basketball the past few years. But after Cunningham’s 40-point, 11-rebound performance Saturday to lift the No. 21 Cowboys to a 94-90 overtime win at No. 8 Oklahoma, it would be wise to make a special note on Selection Sunday of where Oklahoma State lands in the bracket. 

That’s not because the Cowboys have a great roster — they don’t. But is Cunningham good enough to knock off a couple higher seeded teams and carry Oklahoma State to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005? There’s no doubt it could happen — assuming the NCAA doesn’t interfere over the next couple weeks. 

Out of all the schools who were caught up in the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption that became public in 2017, Oklahoma State was the first to receive its penalty last June 5. The most significant part of that punishment was a postseason ban, which seemed pretty harsh because Lamont Evans, the former assistant coach who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, spent only one year at Oklahoma State and was fired immediately when the charges became public. 

But the penalty was doubly harsh because Oklahoma State had the No. 1 ranked recruit in Cunningham on the way, and suddenly there was doubt about whether he’d show up on campus. 

But Cunningham, whose brother Cannen was hired as an assistant coach at Oklahoma State in 2019, came anyway. Meanwhile, the school appealed the penalty, which meant until the NCAA’s infractions appeals committee weighed in, the Cowboys would be eligible for the 2021 tournament. 

So far, the NCAA hasn’t said another word about the case. Which means unless that happens in the next 15 days, Cunningham will play in the Big Dance after all. And thank goodness for that, because if Saturday was a preview of what to expect when there’s a lot on the line, he could truly end up engineering a special tournament run. 

Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham gets around Oklahoma's Jalen Hill. Cunningham had a career-high 40 points. (Photo: Sarah Phipps, USA TODAY Sports)

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Oklahoma did everything it could to stop Cunningham from winning the game almost by himself, but the 6-foot-8 guard was so under control, so smart and so clutch down the stretch that by the end there wasn’t much the Sooners could do. 

Even though Oklahoma kept making play after play, Cunningham had all the answers. He drove into traffic on the baseline and made a layup with 90 seconds left for the lead. Down 1 with about 40 seconds left, he got to the lane, almost lost the dribble but gathered it and hit a floater. 

From the 9:34 mark of the second half to the end of regulation, he had 15 of Oklahoma State’s 25 points. 

Then midway through overtime, he got to his spot on the right block again and floated it in for a 83-82 lead. As the Cowboys tried to put the game way in the final seconds, he made all four free throws, going 13-for-14 from the line overall. It was the kind of performance that showed not only Cunningham’s individual talent, but his instincts for when to go get his shot and when to trust his teammates. Not a single thing he did in that game seemed forced. 

And it’s a breath of fresh air in an era when a lot of prospects who were similarly touted coming out of high school went to off-brand schools, made little impact and generally seemed like they didn’t enjoy much about college basketball.

Last year’s No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards disappeared at times during a losing season at Georgia. James Wiseman packed up and left Memphis amid a fight with the NCAA over his eligibility. Markelle Fultz didn’t make the NCAA Tournament at Washington. The most memorable thing about Ben Simmons’ year at LSU was the documentary film he was making while on campus. 

The track record of surefire one-and-done players who chose to go somewhere besides a Duke, Kentucky, Kansas or Arizona-type school just hasn’t been that great lately.

So for Cunningham to make the most out of his year at Oklahoma State is impressive. Like all freshmen, he's had some tough nights. But in some really big spots, he’s been terrific, including 21 points in a big win over Arkansas last month and 20 on 8-of-13 field goals Monday night in an overtime win over Texas Tech. 

What he did against Oklahoma, though, was a completely different level of dominance, where the ball was in his hands every possession down the stretch and he found a way to make good things happen almost every time down the floor. That kind of skill and size combined with the ability to play under control makes him the easy No. 1 pick in this draft. But if he can continue to play like that for the next few weeks, Cunningham could carry Oklahoma State a long way. 

Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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