KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Mike Boynton is an early riser. He has to be running a major-college program while developing the projected No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
That's why an image from last fall still stood out for Oklahoma State's coach following a 72-69 win over No. 10 West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals Thursday. The moment came after Cade Cunningham – that projected No. 1 pick and Big 12 Player of the Year – beat him to the practice gym last November following a season-opening win at Texas-Arlington.
"I came in the gym about 6 a.m.," Boynton said. " I heard a ball bouncing. I was certain it was one of our returners or walk-ons. It was Cade in the gym by himself shooting and rebounding on his own. It was pretty unique to see."
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Unique, because Cunningham didn't have to be there. The 6-foot-8 freshman who would become a national player of the year candidate had just debuted with 21 points and 10 rebounds against the Mavericks.
"It's not like he played bad," Boynton added. "It was his commitment to the process … I think that bought him credibility with his teammates."
Credibility off the court was about all Cunningham needed. He already proved all the loyalty anyone could need by coming to Stillwater, Oklahoma, in the first place. It may have been a package deal – his brother is on the Oklahoma State coaching staff – but the Cowboys were hit with a one-year postseason ban for a former assistant's role in the FBI cheating scandal. Oklahoma State appealed, delaying any penalties. It has meant the difference in the best player able to lift the Cowboys to their first NCAA Tournament berth in four years.
"I don't think anybody expected us to be at this point especially when the sanctions came down and we weren't supposed to make the postseason," Cunningham said. "They thought everybody would probably leave. To see everybody stay the course … I'm excited to see how far we can go with this."
The No. 12 Cowboys won their 19th game advancing to the Big 12 semis Friday against Baylor. Boynton's coaching and Cunningham's game have made them appointment viewing. On Feb. 27, the freshman had 40 and 10 at Oklahoma in a game that flashed his next-level brilliance.
But Cunningham wasn't nearly the best player on the floor Thursday. The fact that he was on the floor at all was news. Cunningham missed the regular-season finale Saturday at West Virginia with a sore ankle. The Cowboys still won 85-80. Teammate Avery Anderson responded with a career-high 31 points.
"That was probably the biggest game of the year and the most fun game of the year," Cunningham said. "I don't think anybody besides our locker room believed in us at the time."
On Thursday, Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins made sure to double-team Cunningham whenever possible. The harassing defense caused the star to take 15 shots to get his 17 points. Cunningham's six turnovers were one short of a career high.
Shortly before halftime he was picked clean by West Virginia's Miles McBride and the half ended with McBride dunking over Cunningham.
"The best player in the country just gets the ball taken out of his hands for a layup," Boynton lamented.
We now have a broader, brighter picture of the Pokes after a 42-33 second-half rally. After Cunningham, there are no other top-50 players on the Oklahoma State roster. They won this game despite the clamp down on the star. Cunningham scored his last basket with 6:18 left. Down the stretch it was Anderson (17 points) and fellow guard Isaac "Ice" Likekele.
It was the 6-5 Likekele who caused Mountaineers 6-3 guard Sean McNeil to double clutch on a game-tying 3-pointer as time expired. Those two inches might have been the difference. McNeil's 3-pointer dropped through a heartbeat after the clock hit zero.
"I saw a kid in Likekele who would do whatever it took for his team to win," Boynton said. "That's who I am. That's who I was as a player. That's the only chance I had a chance to help a team in the SEC [playing point guard at South Carolina]. I thought I saw all those things in 'Ice.'"
The Cowboys have turned that stay of NCAA execution into a feel-good story. Oklahoma State is a three-headed force with Cunningham, Anderson (48 points in his last two games) and Likekele, who hadn't played since Feb. 22 with a lingering foot injury.
Boynton knew he had a player who would fit in days into preseason camp. He sent Cunningham and Likekele to practice with the big men.
"We never talked about that in recruiting," Boynton said. "You kind of wonder if you do something you haven't talked about with the kid, he's going to look at you like, 'That wasn't what we discussed.'
"When I first sent him to work with our bigs he was as excited as anybody."
Cunningham eventually stayed at guard. This is the kind of team you want headed to the tournament. Cooperative. Motivated.
"They had to get at 6 a.m. to do [drug] testing," Boynton said. "We do not have a morning team. They were not happy about that."
The Cowboys should be motivated further having lost to Baylor twice by a combined 26 points.
They may one day mention Cunningham in Stillwater in the same way as Garth Brooks -- a budding, local talent who passed through OSU on his way to greatness. For now, it's OK to mention Cunningham's name in the same sentence Luka Doncic. Both are incredibly young – Cunningham is 19; Doncic is 22 -- and incredibly refined as shooters, passers and defenders.
This run isn't over yet. Before the game, Boynton strode to center court to pose with Cunningham who became just the fourth Big 12 player to be named both freshman and player of the year.
"This is nothing against his parents, but I feel like I've helped raise him," Boynton said. "I've been on this journey with him for so long … We've had to discuss a lot of hard things. All the things he's wanted to do as a college player are coming to light now … It's been a pretty good marriage. "Unfortunately, we're going to have an amicable separation here soon. I hope it's not for a couple of weeks."