It was impossible to watch the Westlake boys basketball team the last few years and not notice Brock Cunningham. The guy was literally everywhere, diving for everything and battling everybody.
The 6-6 forward was not one of Texas coach Shaka Smart’s typical recruits. He wasn’t one those hamburger All-Americans. Frankly, Cunningham looks like the guy asking if you want fries with that.
But just watch the tape. The guy made things happen.
“You know, you have to have a nastiness about you,” Smart said earlier this week. “That’s why we recruited Brock to come here.”
Multiple front-court injuries finally opened a door, and Cunningham bull-rushed his way in. The Longhorns don’t win five straight and play their way into NCAA Tournament contention without Cunningham and his go-for-broke, hell-raising chaos.
This Texas squad is still battling to get into the NCAAs. Texas (19-11, 9-8 Big 12) can solidify a third-place finish in the league standings with a home win Saturday against Oklahoma State. That would be the team’s highest finish in Smart’s five seasons.
Turn the hearse around. A team left for dead just a few weeks ago is very much alive.
“I think everyone was upset with losing,” Cunningham said after Tuesday’s win at Oklahoma. “I think we found a new identity these past couple of games, and that’s the main thing — just playing really, really hard. Guys are desperate to win. We’re playing like we’re desperate.”
Cunningham thought for a moment and added, “I pride myself on good answers, but that sucked. I’m tired.”
No, actually it was spot on. Smart looks at his bench and sees Jericho Sims and Gerald Liddell both out indefinitely with back injuries. He had little choice but to use Cunningham, who has hit four 3-pointers, grabbed 25 rebounds and five steals the last five games. Another key stat: Only one turnover.
Cunningham’s open-court steal and run-out dunk ignited the 70-59 win at Kansas State. He had quite a night harassing West Virginia. Those elbows were pointed out far and wide while hitting two 3-pointers against Texas Tech.
“In pick-up, that’s the first guy you’re picking, because you don’t want to play against him,” guard Matt Coleman III said. “You just love his heart and his aggression, you know?”
Cunningham redshirted last season, and there was genuine curiosity inside Cooley Pavilion how he would eventually fit in. Former UT assistant Mike Morrell, who oversaw Cunningham’s recruitment, was a full believer. “Just you wait. You’ll see,” he said numerous times.
Cunningham battled throughout the offseason, elbowing his way through the depth chart and eventually starting the season opener.
He went 0-for-3, got no rebounds and had two turnovers in 10 minutes against Northern Colorado. He didn’t play against Purdue, got scant minutes the next four games and really wasn’t seen again for two months.
So how’d he get lost? Starting Sims (9.7 points, 8.2 rebounds) was a no-brainer. Smart thought Liddell (4.4 points, 3.3 rebounds) had more upside, but it was rarely seen. Kai Jones started getting minutes along with Royce Hamm Jr.
Cunningham was viewed as the last option off the bench.
To some degree, it’s understandable. A team that’s struggled offensively the last four seasons needs as much scoring punch it can get. That’s not really Cunningham’s strong suit. He’s 7-for-13 shooting the last five games, a .538 shooting percentage. In 15 games overall, he’s shooting .364. He’s a defense and rebounding guy, an energy shot.
“Credit to him. He just waited his turn,” guard Courtney Ramey said. “A lot of people would’ve been frustrated, but he battled through it. We’re constantly talking to him: It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. Look what happened. People went down and he was huge for our team.”
In four consecutive games, Cunningham got tangled with opponents and all ended up on the floor. Then against OU, he went flying into the front row for a loose ball.
“I’m not going to fill the stat sheet on points or assists or steals, but I’ll do the little things like that,” Cunningham said.
On another play, he forced OU’s Austin Reaves to jostle a loose ball near the sideline and it went out of bounds. Texas maintained possession, and Kamaka Hepa hit a 3-pointer.
“Most people aren’t ready for what he brings, because we’re not ready for it all the time,” Ramey said. “He just goes after every rebound, makes hustle plays. That’s what we want Brock to do. And he made some big shots (against OU).”
Cunningham will get plenty of minutes the rest of the season. Smart has no other choice. It’s up to Cunningham to stay out of foul trouble so he can stay in the game.
“Just doing whatever I can to help the team,” he said.
Texas (19-11, 9-8 Big 12) vs. Oklahoma State (16-14, 6-11), 3 p.m., ESPN2, 104.9
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.