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Bohls: Texas' Cunningham scores compliments for his dirty work and defense

Texas forward Brock Cunningham fights for a rebound with Kansas' Jalen Wilson, left, and David McCormack during overtime of the Longhorns' victory Tuesday.
  • Cunningham has started only two games in his career but has played a critical role.
  • The redshirt sophomore averages just over a point a game but has 35 rebounds in 11 Big 12 games.
  • "I'm happy with four loose balls, two fouls and maybe a charge here and there," Cunningham said.

You've got to love Brock Cunningham.

Unless, of course, you hate him.

And there are plenty in both camps. But Cunningham, you should know, is more than comfortable with eliciting both responses. Comes with the job.

If you’re a college basketball fan who lives outside this state’s borders, you might not have ever heard of Texas' redshirt sophomore forward. Why would you?

He’s played in all but one of Texas’ 19 games this season. How many has he started? Zero. For that matter, he has started in just two of his 35 career games.

He might be the Big 12’s sixth man of the year.

“For someone to vote for him for that type of award,” coach Shaka Smart said, “they would really have to be able to kind of see beyond the numbers. He’s such a unique player. He has a purity about him.”

So why is he so important to this 14-6 team that’s a lock for the NCAA Tournament and maybe as high as a No. 4 seed?

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Because while top scorer and leukemia survivor Andrew Jones might be the heart and soul of the team, Cunningham is its elbows and shoulders. He brings the muscle. The toughness. The grit. The inspiration for others.

He plays with an obvious edge. He just rubs people the wrong way — or right way, if you’re a Texas fan — and gets under opponents’ skin. He won’t sniff any all-conference teams, but he’s All-Pest as a gritty defender.

Never mind that he’s shooting under 24% from the field and has nine baskets all year; that’s not where his value lies. In Big 12 play, he’s made just two field goals this season and averages half a point. But he has 35 rebounds.

However, even though he averages a microscopic 1.4 points a game — yeah, you read that right — to rank 12th on the team, this 6-foot-5, 204-pound bruiser is easily the Longhorns' MVP. That’s MVP as in the team’s most villainous player.

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He’d definitely be on the league’s All-Villain Team.

“I would hope so,” Cunningham said.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has kept arenas from filling up. Otherwise, Cunningham’s name would be on the lips of every rowdy student section from Morgantown, W.Va., to Manhattan, Kan. Hey, Brock, did you get a scholarship because your daddy was a Longhorns lineman? Yo, Brock, my grandma can score more points than you do.

He’d have heard it all. Too bad he’s been spared the theater because he would have given it right back to them. In spades.

“It would be a lot of fun if people are yelling at me,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something right for my team.”

Cunningham gladly wears the black hat. He doesn’t like his role. He relishes it, lives for it.

“I love it,” he said. “I love the role Coach Smart has set for me.”

Brock Cunningham wrestles with Kansas' Christian Braun in a scramble on the floor during Texas' victory Tuesday night. Cunningham, a former Westlake High School all-around star, brings the muscle for the Longhorns.

Cunningham, you see, does the dirty work for Smart’s team, banging in the paint, scrambling for loose balls, the guy who shows up out of nowhere and makes a critical steal. And he’ll have to do plenty of those things when 14th-ranked Texas, fresh off an overtime win over Kansas on Tuesday, visits Texas Tech on the road Saturday and tries to sustain the momentum going into the final week of the regular season.

He’ll leave the scoring to the rest of the team. But doesn’t he long for the games when he could put up 20 a night?

“It doesn’t bother me,” Cunningham said. “I’m happy with four loose balls, two fouls and maybe a charge here and there. That’s a great game in my eyes.”

He’s the guy fighting for position under the basket for the critical rebound like Dennis Rodman and Draymond Green, heroes he tries to emulate. Like them, he’s become a master of the trade, following the flight of the ball, looking to position himself just right.

In less than 17 minutes a game, Cunningham averages 3.4 rebounds, just about a rebound fewer than Kai Jones. That’s 6-11 Kai Jones.

It doesn’t go unnoticed.

Texas' Brock Cunningham hangs on tightly as Sam Houston State's Tristan Ikpe ties him up to force a jump ball during the Longhorns' 79-63 win in December.

“He’s phenomenal,” Jones said. “He just brings that toughness. He’s like a cowboy out there. He’s just wild. I love the way he plays.”

Takes one to know one. Kai Jones, like Cunningham, comes off the bench and gives Texas a two-headed monster who comes in and wreaks havoc on the opponent.

It’s no different in practices because Cunningham is just as feisty there. His motor knows no idle.

So does that lead to fights with his teammates?

“Yeah, just a little bit,” Jones said, laughing.

Have they told him to chill and take a breath?

“I think everyone’s had a moment like that" with him, Jones said. “But it’s a great thing. His motor never stops.”

Which is why Cunningham is made for the WWE.

Or, as Jones said, “I told him he should get in the UFC.”

He should. He’d be right at home in the octagon. 

But first things first.

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The spark plug for the Texas basketball team has quite different priorities these days. Until he chooses a profession for his livelihood, the junior from Westlake High School will stick to wrestling with Big 12 basketball opponents.

You know, the ones on the receiving end of his verbal barbs or sharp elbows or hip bumps, which Cunningham administers on a nightly basis on the basketball court.

Does he also trash talk opponents?

“I do trash talk,” he admitted. “It’s a lot of fun to get back to my roots and let the other team know what I’m about.”

Maybe next year he will evolve back into the more complete player he was in leading Westlake to the state semifinals as a senior alongside former Longhorns center Will Baker, who transferred to Nevada. Cunningham averaged almost 15 points for the Chaparrals, who won 65 of 76 games his last two seasons there.

Surely he considered bolting for greener pastures as well. Even Smart said he assumed Cunningham did.

“Uh, no, I didn’t consider transferring,” he said. “I felt like I needed to work through my freshman and sophomore years and not run away from the challenge. I’m unbelievably grateful that I did stay and work through those tough times.”

But Cunningham would like to clear up one possible misperception.

He is a nice guy. At least off the court.

“Oh, yeah,” he told reporters. “I think we’d all hang out. All the media. We should all go out.”

Hey, every group needs a bodyguard.

Texas forward Brock Cunningham (30), a rough-and-tumble sort, has made a career of battling for loose balls, as he did here against Sam Houston State in a December game.

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