Cunningham Making His Mark
By Brian Price
At this point last season, the Oregon State men's basketball team was 9-15.
This year? They're 15-11 with four games left to play in the regular season. Their progress is obvious and junior Jared Cunningham has proven to be a dynamic and effective player on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, he leads his team and the Pac-12 in scoring, averaging an impressive 18.9 points per game. Nicknamed "Flight" by his teammates, Cunningham's reverse alley-oop slam dunk against Howard on December 15 has been nominated for the Geico Play of the Year.
Cunningham always had the mentality of a scorer. Growing up in Oakland, he learned his game on the same blacktop courts as Oregon State University great Gary Payton.
"I came up watching Gary [Payton] as well as Jason Kidd and Brian Shaw - all of the Oakland greats," says Cunningham. "I fell in love with the game [of basketball] early, at the age of five. I didn't grow [much] until high school so I had to use my speed and athleticism to get around defenders, attack the rim and score inside."
Cunningham is emulating Payton is other ways as well. The junior guard is currently fourth on the OSU all-time steals list with 197. He's on track to make a run at Payton's record of 321, the most in OSU history. He'll be in sole possession of second all-time when he gets 206 this year.
"It's an honor to be a current player on the list and to keep moving up," notes Cunningham, who currently averages 2.77 steals per game, fifth overall in the nation. "However, it takes dedication everyday [to be in this position]."
It also takes tremendous instincts. Cunningham's success as a defender stems from his ability to get in passing lanes and disrupt the opposing offense. He also studies game tapes in order to determine where opponents like to pass the ball in certain situations. For instance: Does an opposing point guard pass to the wing first or work the ball inside?
"I read their eyes as much as I read the ball," Cunningham explains. "From there I use my quickness and instincts to get to the ball before anyone else can."
Cunningham also credits head coach Craig Robinson's implementation of the 1-3-1 defensive scheme as a major reason why the Beavers have been able to create so many turnovers. They're third in the nation with 9.9 steals per game.
"The 1-3-1 allows us to use our athleticism and our length to cause turnovers. From there we can push the ball and get easy fast-break points," says Cunningham. "Coach [Robinson] has a philosophy that we all follow: commit to defense and the offense will come. Getting steals that lead to scores is a perfect example of that."
Cunningham attributes his team's ability on both ends of the floor to being stronger and in better shape than last year. The Beavers are sixth in the nation in scoring, averaging a total of 80.4 points per game.
"We try to get up and down [the floor] faster and more often this year. That takes endurance and conditioning and that starts in the off-season workouts. Pushing the ball in transition and getting points was something we knew we wanted to do this season. Play hard, play smart and play together. That's what we're focused on," says Cunningham.
Cunningham is currently leading the Beavers in minutes played, points and steals per game. He's relished his role of team leader.
"Getting myself conditioned in the offseason to play these long minutes has been crucial to my [effective] play," says Cunningham, who has been named Pac-12 Player of the Week twice this season. "It was important for me to get strong in the weight room so I could take hits and play through the fouls."
In the last two seasons, Cunningham has started 54 of 55 games.
"I'm on a team where everybody believes in me," he says. "[If the game is on the line] I know I'm going to get the ball, but I also know my teammates and coaches trust me to make the play."
With five games left in the regular season the Beavers can comfortably rely on their playmaker to both score and contribute a levelheaded approach to the ups and downs of a season.
"Our record doesn't really show how good we are at this point in the season. Oregon State is a tough team and we'll play to the end," says Cunningham. "The Pac-12 Tournament is coming up and we're going to fight until, hopefully, we've won it."