As we continue to preview Liberty’s first-round tournament matchup against Oklahoma State, ASOR welcomes Jacob Unruh. Unruh is a college basketball insider and covers college sports for “The Oklahoman.”
The style and pace of play are a clear contrast between these two programs. The Cowboys like to push the pace and get 76.3 possessions per game which is good for 19th in the country. Liberty is 340th in possessions per game with 65.6 as they prefer a slower pace. How can the Flames slow down the Oklahoma State offense on Friday, specifically in transition?
Jacob Unruh: The pace alone will be a struggle for the Cowboys. They love speed. If Liberty can avoid turnovers and make shots, it puts the Cowboys in a bind. But OSU is excellent at using its length to get steals near midcourt, leading to fastbreaks. OSU is also surprisingly good rebounding and is quick to push the basketball with its speed, athleticism and length. What also will help is if Liberty can turn OSU into a 3-point shooting team. OSU is 167th in the country in 3-point percentage (33.8%).
Oklahoma State turns the ball over at a high rate of 15.9 TOP which is 317th out of 340 teams in the nation. While the Cowboys can afford to turn the ball over more than most due to the number of possessions they get, do you think that turnovers could be a major factor in the game and could sway things in Liberty’s favor?
JU: Absolutely. OSU’s speed has its downfall, and that’s turnovers. But there are also careless mistakes. Cade Cunningham has lost the basketball without pressure at times. Teams have taken the ball from players’ hands. Offensive fouls. It all adds up, especially as the importance of games increases. But OSU cleaned some of that up in the Big 12 Tournament, hovering around 13 turnovers in the final two games. That’s more where coach Mike Boynton prefers the total to be.
Cade Cunningham is an absolute phenom. The freshman is averaging 20.2 ppg and 6.3 rpg and will most assuredly hear his name called early in the NBA Draft if he chooses to enter. The ASUN Defensive Player of the Year in Elijah Cuffee will likely have the assignment of guarding Cunningham. While it will be nearly impossible to stop him, what is the key for Liberty to contain the superstar?
JU: Prayer? I don’t know on this one. I’ve seen great defensive teams like Baylor struggle to slow Cade down. He went crazy against No. 7 Oklahoma and dropped 40 points with an elite defender on him. Kansas coach Bill Self did everything but throw a kitchen sink at him and Cade still controlled the game. He’s so dangerous because he can adjust so well. If you try to trap him, he dribbles or passes out. If you do double him, he almost always finds his open teammate. Give him a little space and he scores. Plus, he’s 6 feet 8. He’s a nightmare for opponents when on. Even in games he doesn’t score much — he took three shots in a win at Kansas State — he makes his teammates better. He has been turnover prone and he gets into foul trouble at times. Texas had some early success trapping him before he even crossed half court, but he adjusted and scored 25 in the second half. Bottom line: He’s going to make plays one way or another.
Who are some other players besides Cunningham that could make an impact on Friday and in what way do they contribute to the team best?
JU: Cade has really made everyone on the roster better. He’s also benefited as well. It’s not just Cade and everybody else. Isaac Likekele — the team leader — returned in the conference tournament from a hand injury. He’s a 6-5 guard who can match up with a center with his linebacker build. He attacks the rim well, passes very well, rebounds better than anyone else and is a bulldog defender. He is the primary point guard outside of Cade. Then there’s Avery Anderson III. Only a sophomore, the speedy guard has become OSU’s second-best scorer. He dropped 31 against West Virginia with Cunningham and Likekele on the bench due to injuries. He was named to the Big 12 All-Tournament team. Boynton argues Anderson is the most improved player in the country. Not to keep going too much, but sophomore forward Kalib Boone has come into his own. Freshman forward Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe is a force inside (he was also the two-time Canadian player of the year). Bryce Williams can do everything and is OSU’s most complete guard. Rondel Walker is coming off the bench and he’s a sparkplug. Basically, this team is deep and talented.
What will be the determining factor in who wins this game and what is your prediction?
JU: It really depends if OSU can impose its will. The Cowboys have adjusted well most of the season. Their biggest struggle has been turnovers and true big men. I look for the Cowboys to win 75-65.