Oklahoma State And No. 1 Recruit Cade Cunningham Were Banned From The 2021 NCAA Tournament

Even Cade Cunningham couldn’t deny the expectations that he’d end up committing to Oklahoma State last fall. His brother, Cannen, had just taken a job on the coaching staff, and Cade himself was born in Arlington, which is about a four-hour drive from Stillwater. “Blood is always thicker than water,” wrote Cunningham on Instagram when he announced his decision. Regardless of what steered Cunningham toward the Cowboys, the program will have a vastly different 2020-21 campaign than it expected after the NCAA announced violations on the part of former associate head coach Lamont Evans.

The NCAA said Friday the Cowboys’ men’s basketball program would be banned from the postseason in 2021 after finding Evans’ acceptance of bribe money from two recruits’ financial advisors violated ethical conduct rules. It was already a leap of faith for Cunningham to join his brother at a school that isn’t even an annual lock to make the NCAA tournament out of the Big 12, and now his future with the Cowboys will come under further scrutiny.

In the interim, Oklahoma State will file an “immediate” appeal with the NCAA, according to Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports.

Meanwhile, Larry Parkinson, chief hearing officer for the panel and director of enforcement for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, justified the postseason ban by saying “It’s almost always going to be the case that some innocent parties that had nothing to do with the violations are going to be adversely impacted.”

It is worth mentioning that Evans’ tenure in Stillwater largely occurred during the year that Brad Underwood, who has since left for Illinois, was in charge. While current head coach Mike Boynton was an assistant on the same staff as Evans, the now-former assistant left Boynton’s staff before a game could ever be played, and the infractions in question occurred during Underwood’s tenure as head coach.

The closest comparison to Cunningham’s situation prior to this week was that of Michael Porter Jr., who followed his father, an assistant coach, from Washington to Missouri back in 2017. At least for Porter, though, the Tigers squeaked into the tournament and he was able to show that he could play before the NBA Draft. Without the chance to get into the postseason at all, there’s not much tying Cunningham to Oklahoma State except family at this point.

The idea that Cunningham could find greener pastures elsewhere was compounded when Jeff Goodman of Stadium reported Cunningham had already turned down a high-dollar offer to join the G League Select Team in southern California this fall.

Add in the uncertainty around the college athletics calendar in 2020 and 2021, and one can argue it makes even less sense for Cunningham, who was at the top of ESPN’s most recent 2021 mock draft, to stay at school. Why not sign with an agent now and spend the next 12 months with access to endorsements and state-of-the-art facilities, rather than wading through what is bound to be the most bizarre and disjoined college basketball season in recent memory?

Cunningham was not only a silky jumbo point guard at Montverde Academy but also a high school quarterback who idolized Tony Romo. He’s a natural, and it shows. Prior to signing with Oklahoma State, there was talk of Cunningham reclassifying and being eligible for this year’s draft, especially after a dazzling performance in the U19 World Cup team last fall. At the bare minimum, he likely would’ve been in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in 2020.

But what of 2021? It must be mentioned that the Pokes’ attempt at fighting this ruling could be successful, at which point staying in Stillwater makes the most sense. If not, perhaps Cunningham could ask for waivers to re-sign with a different college program, and he would immediately become the most highly-sought-after recruit in America. Or maybe he would decide to forgo college altogether, even if the G League Select offer is not still waiting for him. Nothing has come out yet indicating he’s even looking into leaving, but after several tough breaks for college basketball (the Oklahoma State president said it will host in-person classes in the fall but has offered few details) and the state Boynton’s program due to someone who hasn’t been a Cowboy in years, there may be fewer chances for Cunningham to flourish in the NCAA than by blazing his own trail.