The Oklahoma State Cowboys will take the court Friday evening around suppertime at Indiana Farmers Coliseum to challenge the No. 13 seed Liberty Flames. For those who remember the headlines of last summer, it seems at least curious, perhaps downright baffling, to see O.K. State preparing to compete in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
“Oklahoma State gets postseason ban, 3 years of probation, other punishments from NCAA.”
That was the headline at SportingNews.com on June 5, 2020.
And if it’s not clear, the text of the article explains that the postseason ban was scheduled to be served immediately, as in, right now. There was no “report in 2022 to serve your sentence.” The Cowboys were supposed to play their regular season and then cease activity when March started going mad.
They’re here, though, and that is how it should be, even though the process by which they retained their eligibility to compete in the NCAAs is convoluted even by the extraordinary standards of NCAA justice. They are playing because Oklahoma State appealed the penalty of a one-year postseason ban, and because the hearing on that appeal reportedly was not heard until February, and because the decision on that appeal has not yet been rendered.
All-American freshman Cade Cunningham chose to remain in the program with coach Mike Boynton and his brother, Cannen, an assistant coach, even after the punishment had been rendered. Cade is well aware of all the technicalities. He maintains, however, that O.K. State is in the tournament for a more fundamental reason: They were too good to be excluded.
“To be completely honest with you, I knew that if we did what we had to do in our regular-season games — I know how this works — they were going to put us in,” Cunningham told reporters on a Zoom call this week. “So we had that chip on our shoulder. Every game, we were trying to prove something.
“Obviously, with the ban, we feel like the school didn’t do anything wrong. They handled it well. But it was put in place, and we knew that if we proved every game we belonged, they would put us in.”
Cunningham, understand, hasn’t been around the NCAA for all that long, so he has not seen some of what we have.
However, there did come a point in the season where O.K. State so obviously was one of the best teams in the nation and Cunningham so clearly one of the best players, and the decision on the appeal was so proximate to the start of the tournament, any decision to exclude the Cowboys was going to result in a wave of negative publicity that the NCAA did not need at this juncture. Had the appeal been denied on Feb. 20 or March 1 or on Selection Sunday, the response from the public would have been ferocious.
The NCAA has enough hashtags to deal with at the moment.
Whatever the reason the appeal was not heard until the regular season was a month from its conclusion and the decision was not presented more than a month after that, it is for the best. This is how it should be.
Oklahoma State never should have been banned from the postseason. That’s obvious in the penalty handed South Carolina that involved the same person (former Gamecocks and Cowboys assistant coach Lamont Evans) allegedly doing similar things (accepting money from an agents/financial manager to influence a players’ representation decision).
Athletic director Mike Holder immediately declared that the penalties were exorbitant given the nature of the charges. “Impossible to reconcile,” were Holder’s words, and he was right.
Punished in February, South Carolina did not receive a postseason ban, nor scholarship penalties similar to those against O.K. State. The NCAA offered reasons for why that was the case, but they weren’t sufficient to explain the differential.
Delaying the penalty a year, if that’s all that comes of this, at least gives the Cowboys a chance to compete in the NCAAs when they’ve got their best team in 15 years and their most talented player since, at least, Bob Kurland. His final season as a three-time All-American came in 1946.
In choosing to attend O.K. State rather than Kentucky, which heavily recruited him, Cunningham became one of the rare recent one-and-done stars to elevate his team to significant success at a place that rarely attracts such players. Such recent top NBA picks as Anthony Edwards (Georgia), Dennis Smith (N.C. State) and Ben Simmons (LSU) did not make the tournament.
The Cowboys earned a No. 4 seed — actually, they earned a No. 3, but were not assigned one by the selection committee — and reached the Big 12 title game.
“ ’Cause I hate to lose,” Cunningham told reporters. “I know Oklahoma State didn’t have the year they were most proud of last year. But my brother always told me, whenever he got hired — he didn’t recruit me for the longest, until a couple of months before it was time to make a decision. Because he said, ‘I’m not going to recruit you to a school I don’t think is ready for you.’ He gave it a long analysis. And eventually he told me: Yeah, I think this is a place where you can come in and succeed.
“And that was because of the groundwork Coach Mike had already laid. He told me how much the players wanted to win, how much the staff wanted to win, and were ready to win.”
Boynton expressed gratitude at having the opportunity to compete in March, although he framed it as a matter of respect for NCAA vice president Dan Gavitt and the team of staffers and volunteers working to put on an NCAA Tournament with as few disruptions from COVID as possible.
One almost can hear a hint of relief from Boynton, though, at being given the chance to take this team on the court given the odds stacked against the Cowboys last summer.
“We have an opportunity to play in what I think is the best event in sports,” Boynton said Wednesday. “Our guys are excited and looking forward to being a part of it
“I think we have a team that can beat anybody in the field. There’s not anybody that we can play that I wouldn’t go in thinking I have the best player in the game.”
We all will get to see Cunningham take his shot. It will be only this one, but it’s better than none at all. And “none” seemed like the overwhelming favorite when the season began.