Oklahoma State could have a year to remember, even if it doesn’t end in the NCAA Tournament.
Freshman point guard Cade Cunningham, a preseason Associated Press All-American, stayed at Oklahoma State despite the NCAA banning the Cowboys from postseason play this season. Though the Cowboys still await a response to their appeal, they remain excited about what one of the nation's top recruiting classes could accomplish.
“All of us want to win, regardless,” guard Isaac Likekele said. “We’re going to work hard regardless. Of course, we want to win a national title, do that stuff, but if we can’t, that’s not going to be our main goal. Our main goal is to be the best us every day.”
Likekele, a junior guard, was Oklahoma State’s No. 2 scorer last season with 10.9 points per game. He said he will have no problem fitting in with Cunningham. Likekele also averaged 5.6 points, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals.
“I’m not the type that can only do one specific thing," he said. "I’m a versatile player, so I feel like the better players we got, that’s really an advantage to me because at the end of the day, all I want to do is win.”
Cunningham and Likekele give coach Mike Boynton confidence that the Cowboys can match up with anyone.
“Our guard play is terrific,” he said. “There’s no one in the country who I would rather have their group of guards over mine.”
Boynton has compared Cunningham’s possible impact to that of Oklahoma’s Trae Young during the 2017-18 season. As a freshman, Young led the nation in scoring and assists and lifted a team that struggled the previous season to the NCAA Tournament.
Oklahoma State won eight of its final 11 games last season, culminating in a comeback win over Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament. They hope this season has a happy ending, too.
“I think it’s important but I’m not going to get my hopes up,” Cunningham said after he decided to stay. “I still feel like there’s so much that we can accomplish as a team to impact the future. Playing in the postseason -- that’s all been a dream of mine, but I’m really just excited to get to work with the team and see if we can win a Big 12 Conference championship.”
Cameron McGriff, Lindy Waters III and Thomas Dziagwa were fixtures in the lineup who set the tone for the program and helped the Cowboys pull numerous upsets over the years.
Likekele has stepped into the void and is carrying more responsibility.
“He is clearly the leader of our team,” Boynton said. “There’s no question. It’s painfully obvious, in a good way. He commands our practice. His voice reverberates throughout the gym every day and he has a consistent confidence about himself because of the work he put in this summer.”
Cunningham isn’t the only one from the incoming class who chose to stay. Rondel Walker, an ESPN Top 100 guard, stayed, too. So did Donovan Williams, Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe, Montreal Pena, graduate transfer Ferron Flavors and Ole Miss transfer Bryce Williams.
The newcomers will help the team offset the loss of some transfers. Center Yor Anei, a 6-10 center who started 25 games last season, left for SMU. Hidde Roessink, a 6-10 forward, transferred to UMKC.
Before this recruiting class, another highly regarded group established itself as freshmen last year. Avery Anderson, twins Kalib and Keylan Boone and Chris Harris also are back to add some stability.
Kalib Boone had some especially good moments during Big 12 play. He scored 16 points in a win over Texas Tech and 14 in a victory over Oklahoma.
Likekele and Cunningham both played for the 2019 USA Basketball Men’s U19 World Cup Team that won the gold medal.
Cunningham started all seven games and averaged 11.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.4 steals a game. Likekele averaged 8.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.7 steals per contest.
They have picked up where they left off.
“He’s actually a guy I hang around, chill, stuff like that,” Likekele said. “It was really nothing major. It’s just like being back at the crib.”
The Cowboys open the season at Texas-Arlington on Nov. 25 and will visit Marquette on Dec. 1. They will host Arkansas on Jan. 30 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Cowboys will open Big 12 play on Dec 16 at home against TCU.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.