This year’s Big 12 preseason polls can be misleading. Although the Oklahoma State Cowboys were picked to finish seventh by the league’s coaches for the 2020-21 season, there’s still a lot of buzz around this year’s squad in Stillwater. The draw toward the Cowboy program is attributed to the incoming freshman class, which enters this season as the best class in the Big 12 and Oklahoma State’s highest-rated class in school history (4th according to Rivals). However, the Cowboy’s projection to finish 7th in the conference is warranted.
Last season, the Big 12 had a realistic chance at several Final Four teams before March Madness was canceled due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the same is true this season, with the Big 12 possibly being the deepest it’s been in a long time. Baylor and Kansas enter the season as favorites to take the conference title as both are consensus top 10 teams in the preseason. The Bears were picked to finish atop the Big 12 for the first time in school history as the Jayhawks were not picked to win the regular-season title in the preseason poll since 2011-12. But it’s not just the headliners that should make for a competitive Big 12 as both West Virginia (3rd) and Texas (4th) are considered top 20 teams as well, while head coach Chris Beard of Texas Tech (5th) and head coach Lon Kruger of Oklahoma (6th) have found real consistency with their respective programs. The Red Raiders are two years removed from an appearance in the National Championship game while the Sooners have reached six of the last seven NCAA Tournaments. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable for seven of the 10 Big 12 teams to qualify for the NCAA Tournament this season, which is a testament to the conference’s depth.
The loaded conference will be even more challenging for the Cowboys, who had a roster overhaul from last season’s team that finished 18-14. Oklahoma State lost four of its top five scorers and bring in eight freshmen with 10 in total who are new to the program in 2020. However, since head coach Mike Boynton joined the coaching staff in 2016-17, the Cowboys have outperformed their preseason poll prediction in three of the four years.
All Eyez on Cade
Cade Cunningham headlines the 2020 freshman class with a long list of accolades due to his unique combination of size, vision, and play-making ability. The 2020 Naismith High School Player of the Year, Cunningham was the nation’s top recruit according to ESPN, 247Sports, Rivals, USA Today, and others. Cunningham was also the lone freshman named to the Associated Press Preseason All-American team, making him the first Cowboy named to the team since Marcus Smart in 2013. Cunningham also marks the highest-rated recruit to sign with the Cowboys since Gerald Green in 2005 and will mark the highest in school history to play for the Pokes as Green elected to forgo college and head straight for the NBA.
“I think [Cade’s], without question, the best player in America,” Boynton said. “I’m not sure how really debatable that is. This kid really impacts the game in so many different ways.”
There’s not too much else that needs to be said about Cunningham. He can control and take over games without needing crazy athleticism or speed. He’s not the type of quick-twitch athlete such as Zion Williamson, who wows everyone with freakish athleticism that makes them rewind the tape over and over again. And he won’t pull up from near half-court with the confidence of a Trae Young.
But Cunningham separates himself from the pack with his exceptional passing and high-basketball IQ for a 6’7”, 220-pound point guard, which has NBA scouts drooling. While his size and skills are meant to produce triple-doubles, it’s Cunningham’s ability to make the game easier for his teammates that will define him. And although his size gives him a mismatch to score one-on-one against most players he will see at the collegiate level, Cunningham’s primary goal is to orchestrate the offense. His pace in the pick-and-roll game and poise under pressure, while perpetually making the right play, is unmatched for most players his age.
“The thing that I’ve always been most impressed with [Cade] is just his maturity level,” Boynton said. “I met him when he was 14, and he didn’t talk like a 14-year-old. He had a presence about himself. And then when you watch him play, you can see how competitive and unselfish he is. And I think that’s why people are drawn to him, and what he can become ultimately as a college player, but certainly well, well beyond into his pro career.”
Cunningham is atop most NBA mock drafts for 2021, which is shaping out to be one of the deepest and most talented in recent memory. Improving his three-point shooting will be a priority that could result in an all-time collegiate season and unlock All-Star potential in the NBA. If he lives up to his potential with the Cowboys, Cunningham should cement himself as the only option for the No. 1 pick and the most NBA ready player for next year’s draft.
Although Cunningham is the crown jewel of the class, he’s joined in the same class by another highly coveted freshman guard (Rondel Walker) and a pair of freshmen athletic forwards (Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe & Montreal Pena), who should complement well alongside Cunningham and the Cowboy offense, which looks to continue its focus on pushing the ball in transition this season.
Alongside the top-5 recruiting class, the Cowboys are armed with returning All-Big 12 junior guard Isaac Likekele, who deserves just as much excitement. Likekele was named honorable mention All-Big 12 Conference after a standout sophomore season. He will start for a third-straight season under Boynton, as the two-way guard averaged 10.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and nearly two steals per game last season. When he plays his best, he impacts the game as a scorer, rebounder, assist-man, and defender. If his team needs a bucket, he’ll get one. If he needs to hit the glass, he will. And he always defends, which inspires his teammates in the process. As the OSU locker room’s unquestioned leader in 2020-21, Likekele gives everything for this Cowboy squad. So, with Likekele’s experience and proven play to go alongside the talented freshmen and transfer guards around him, Boynton is willing to compare his group with the best in the country.
“Our guard play is terrific,” Boynton said. “Quite simply put, there’s no one in the country who I would rather have their group of guards over mine.”
Outside of Likekele, OSU returns players from its top-25 recruiting class from 2019-20, which includes sophomores Kalib and Keylan Boone, Chris Harris Jr., and Avery Anderson III.
Kalib is a former four-star out of Tulsa Memorial who showed promise throughout his 31 appearances as a freshman last season. With junior big-man Yor Anei transferring to SMU this summer due to the announcement of the one-year postseason ban for OSU, Kalib’s role will be expanded exponentially this season. The loss of Anei comes with a need to fill the void of inside scoring and shot-blocking, which Kalib shined in at times last season. He averaged 4.7 points and 3.0 rebounds on 54.9 percent shooting as a freshman, but those numbers jumped to 5.8 points and 3.2 rebounds on 59.0 percent shooting in Big 12 play. And even as an undersized center at 6’9”, 210 lbs., Kalib held his own in the paint, blocking at least one shot in 18 of his 31 games played last year. Kalib’s question is if he can make the jump to becoming a serviceable starting big man in the Big 12.
Kalib’s twin brother, Keylan, also returns after seeing action in 26 games as a freshman last season. Keylan returns as a bright spot for the Cowboys, especially from beyond the arc, where he shot 34.3 percent, which was second-best on the team last season. Due to their experience, Keylan and Kalib are expected to have more prominent roles as potential starters this season.
Guard Ferron Flavors Jr. comes in as the most experienced player at Oklahoma State despite not playing a single minute for the Cowboys thus far. Flavors, a grad transfer from California Baptist, could end up being one of the most impactful transfers in college basketball this season. And since arriving in Stillwater, Flavors has lived up to his reputation as one of the nation’s premier sharpshooters. Flavors knocked down 2.93 3-pointers per game on 42.7 percent shooting for Cal Baptist last season. Most importantly, Flavors has become an instant veteran and locker room leader for OSU.