When the Oklahoma State men's basketball program was hit with a postseason ban, the whole country was sent into a frenzy.
Not just because the Cowboys had a top-five program highlighted by the No. 1-ranked recruit in Cade Cunningham, but because the sanctions levied were considered – by many experts – harsh and unjust.
The NCAA sanctions came after former associate head coach Lamont Evans took bribes nearly three years ago as a lone wolf while OSU received no competitive advantage.
Still, OSU coach Mike Boynton’s program had to pay the price. The school was hit with a bevy of penalties – most notably a postseason ban – which had many speculating if this top-five recruiting class would be quickly dismantled.
For fans, analysts, reporters and almost everyone, it was hard to fathom this talented class sticking together in the face of these violations.
Yet, it did.
Each and every one of those players stood by their commitment, including potential 2021 NBA draft No. 1 pick Cunningham. That’s without the real possibility of playing in the NCAA tournament.
For many, one year of missing March Madness might not be the most gruesome thing, but for a player such as Cunningham, who’s destined to be a one-and-done college star, playing in that tournament is worth a little more.
“It’s super important, but I’m not going to get my hopes up,” Cunningham said. “I still feel like there’s so much that we can accomplish as a team to impact the program for the future. I feel like that would mean a whole lot to us anyway.
“Playing in a postseason, that’s always 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. Just get as much success as we can. I feel like there’s still a lot of goals that we can accomplish.”
Cunningham said his bond with Boynton and the family-orientated nature of this program outweighed his desire to play in the postseason. Still, that postseason isn’t 100% out of the question yet.
OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder and Boynton are confident they have a strong case in their appeal to play in the tournament, which may be true – but according to lawyers to experts – the chances are slim the NCAA budges on a case such as this one.
Still, Cunningham’s mentality remains square.
“If they do allow us to be in there, I think we will definitely be ready for it,” Cunningham said. “We’re going to prepare the whole season like we’re going to play in the Final Four. And if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. We’re not going to get our hopes up too much. We want to be the best team that we can be.”
The high school superstar is ready – with or without a potential bid to the Big Dance. But that brings up another question.
In an unprecedented time where a sports season is looking more and more questionable by the day, what if there is no college basketball? What if there is no season at all?
“It’s tough to say right now, there’s a lot of unknowns,” Cunningham said “We’re going to prepare like there’s going to be a season and work as hard as we can this offseason to get ready for it, so that if they do say that there is a season, we’re prepared and we’re going to win games.
“If not, we’re still going to train to be the best players we can be until we do get to play basketball again. That’s the biggest thing – just keep working hard and see where we can get.”