Cade Cunningham deserves fair NCAA Tournament chance

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In this job, you don’t root. You don’t pull for teams. It’s part of the press box ground rules — even in virtual times.

But I’m willing to make an exception. I’m rooting for Oklahoma State to get into the NCAA Tournament. I’m pulling for Cade Cunningham to go dancing. I’m hoping the NCAA’s infractions appeals committee doesn’t make a decision on the Cowboys’ appeal before March Madness begins. That would enable them to be included.

Cunningham, the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, deserves to play in the tournament. Oklahoma State does, too. The sport would be better for it, in a year when several elite prospects — most notably Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga — opted to take the new lucrative G-League Ignite route.

Oklahoma State handled everything right with its scandal, as one of the schools involved in the FBI’s investigation into corruption into college basketball. It fired assistant coach Lamont Evans, who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, immediately. It cooperated with the NCAA. Evans, it should be pointed out, was at the school just one year. He worked only a few months under head coach Mike Boynton, although the two were assistant coaches together for one season.

This isn’t Arizona, Kansas or LSU, where head coaches Sean Miller, Bill Self and Will Wade continue to skate by denial after denial, by throwing other people under the bus and being fortunate those same people are loyal and don’t do the same to them. Oklahoma State didn’t try to use the self-imposed postseason-ban trick in a season it was expected to be down, like Arizona and Auburn.

The punishment of a postseason ban came down long after Cunningham picked Oklahoma State over North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Washington. He would’ve been able to get out of that commitment. The ultra-skilled point guard could’ve taken the money and joined Green and Kuminga in the G-League. He could’ve transferred to a blue-blood program and gotten eligible.

But Cunningham stayed. The 6-foot-8 Texan was loyal, in part due to the presence of his older brother Cannen, an assistant coach at the school. He has lifted the program to a tie in the loss column for third place in the Big 12. The Cowboys are hitting their stride at the right time, with four straight wins and five victories in six games. Cunningham, averaging 19.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks, does a little bit of everything. He’s shooting a team-high 43.2 percent from 3-point range and is coming off his best performance as a collegian, a 40-point, 11-rebound masterpiece in an upset of in-state rival Oklahoma.

In recent years, the one-and-done route has lost its luster. The G-League is offering high school players big money. College has been dominated by experienced teams. Duke and Kentucky are having poor seasons for them.

Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton Jr. talks with Cade Cunningham.
AP

Cunningham has been different. He’s been exceptional in every possible way. He’s proven an elite freshman — the right one — can change a meandering program, in ways that top prospects Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Anthony Edwards could not in recent years. When he opted to stay with Oklahoma State, Cunningham said part of the reason was the opportunity to play on such a big stage in the Big 12.

“I want the average basketball fan to know who Cade Cunningham is,” he said last summer.

Hopefully, Cunningham is given the opportunity to really showcase himself over the next few weeks. Oklahoma State could make a big run. He could pull a Danny Manning.

The player and the school deserve the chance. It would only add to what should be a terrific tournament. Most importantly, it would be the just thing.

Bottom of the barrel

The Big Ten is a very good league. At worst, the second-best in the country after the Big 12. It is not historically good though, as some experts predicted in November. The top half of the conference is terrific. The bottom half was vastly overrated.

I can see multiple Final Four teams coming out of the Big Ten. Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State and Iowa are all capable. With the right draw, Rutgers, Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland are potential Sweet 16 teams. The rest of the league doesn’t belong in the dance.

Indiana and Minnesota have proven to be pillow-soft teams that don’t belong to even be considered on Selection Sunday. Michigan State’s loss to Maryland on Sunday hurts the Spartans momentum and makes an upset of Michigan this week a near must. A team three games under .500 in conference play does not deserve a bid. Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska have merely fattened up the records of the teams ahead of them.

Game of the Week

No. 13 Creighton at No. 8 Villanova, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.

The Big East regular-season title will be on the line in Philadelphia when the league’s top teams look to rebound from disappointing losses — Creighton at Xavier and Villanova at Butler. A Creighton victory, followed by a win next Saturday over Butler, and the Bluejays will claim the conference title outright for the first time. Since the formation of the new Big East in 2013, Villanova has had a piece of the title six of seven years.

Villanova
Villanova’s Brandon Slater and Justin Moore.
AP

Seedings:

  1. Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Ohio State
  2. Illinois, Alabama, West Virginia, Houston
  3. Villanova, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa
  4. Arkansas, Florida State, Texas Tech, Texas

Stock Watch

James Bouknight – Up

The Brooklyn native and projected lottery pick changes everything for UConn. It’s more than just his scoring. It’s his presence, the attention and focus he garners. When the sophomore guard plays — he missed five weeks with an elbow injury — the Huskies are 8-2, with the lone losses to Villanova and Creighton. When he doesn’t, UConn is 4-4, offensively challenged and mediocre. Bouknight doesn’t just make the Big East program an NCAA Tournament team. He makes them a second-weekend contender.

Isaac Brown – Up

In November, Wichita State was in disarray. Gregg Marshall resigned amid allegations of physical and verbal abuse. The depleted Shockers were picked seventh in the AAC. Fast-forward to the final week of the regular season, and they are atop the conference. The 51-year-old Brown, in his first year as a college head coach, has done more with less, and the one-time interim coach was rewarded for it with a five-year contract. He deserves every cent he gets.

NET – Down

The small sample size excuse doesn’t work at this point in the year. There is absolutely no reason Colgate — yes, Colgate! — should be ranked 10th. That Loyola Chicago should be ranked 16. And San Diego State should be ranked 18th. Together, they have one Quad 1 victory — in five opportunities. Colgate’s season has been games against Army, Boston University and Holy Cross. That’s it. San Diego State’s best win is over 37th-ranked UCLA at home. Loyola Chicago won at No. 41 Drake. The NET relies a lot on offensive and defensive efficiency. It values quality performance. It also has to take into account who a team beats. The evaluation tool needs tweaking.

Drake -Down

The Bulldogs are going to need to win their conference tournament to go dancing. They now have more Quad 3 losses (two) than Quad 1 wins (one) after an ugly setback to sub-.500 Bradley on Saturday. Their NET of 41 is good enough, but the body of work is not. It’s a shame Drake lost stars ShanQuan Hemphill and Roman Penn to significant injuries. This team looked capable of doing damage in March.

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