As we stand on the precipice of a new year, it’s a fitting time to reflect on 2021. This trip around the sun represented several challenges for all of us and was more polarizing than the last, a disturbing trend. But as far as OSU athletics is concerned, there were both historic highs and lows.
In my mind, these are the top seven Oklahoma State storylines of 2021, in no particular order.
A No. 1 Overall Pick
Despite the cloud of an FBI investigation overshadowing Oklahoma State’s men’s hoops program (more on that below), Cade Cunningham, the top prospect in the nation, made OSU fans’ year in 2020 by sticking with the Cowboys. Then in 2021, he made history as the program’s first No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick.
In his only college season, Cade led the Cowboys to their first NCAA Tournament win in six years. He treated OSU fans with plenty of big plays, games and memories. It’s a shame that he was never able to lace ’em up in front of a packed house at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Cade has been tearing it up in his rookie season with the Detroit Pistons, despite missing time due to an injury and now having entered COVID protocols. In 25 games, he’s averaging 15.3 points, 5.2 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals and is in contention for Rookie of the Year, which would also be an OSU first.
The NCAA Appeal
That cloud I mentioned? It finally took a torrential downpour on top of Mike Boynton and OSU Hoops.
The NCAA rejected Oklahoma State’s appeal, upholding all sanctions, including a postseason ban handed the program for the wrong-doings of former assistant Lamont Evans. No NCAA Tournament. No NIT. No Big 12 Tournament.
It’s a harsh penalty to lay on a group of players and staff, especially since none of whom were in their current position when these infractions occurred.
To further undermine the bureaucracy — and further underline its absurdity — other schools like NC State, which were found guilty of stronger crimes, were dealt much weaker sanctions. Is it a conspiracy against one lone school in the plains? No, it’s just a byproduct of a broken system, especially when those in power of a self-governing organization have no incentive to fix it.
Another WCWS Run
Let’s lighten things up a bit, shall we?
The Cowgirls made their second consecutive Women’s’ College World Series (since there wasn’t a tournament in 2020) and beat OU. That’s one heck of a storyline.
The Cowgirls finished their 2021 season 48-12 overall record and went 15-3, good for second in the league and OSU’s best conference record of the Big 12 era. Kenny Gajewski’s teams have gotten better every season, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue in 2022.
AJ Ferrari Wins a Natty
The confident Cowboy freshman showed up in Stillwater with plenty of fanfare, and then he earned all of it.
From the moment he stepped on campus, AJ Ferrari grabbed every microphone and commanded every camera lens. And then he tore off his t-shirt and practiced flexing at the opposing bench.
Maybe that’s not your style. But with the freshman season he had, he can afford to be trend setter.
Ferrari won an NCAA individual title as a true freshman, going 20-1 while also earning a Big 12 Championship and a bid to the US Olympic trials. I’ll let a better man than me sum it up. Here’s OSU head coach John Smith on his pupil after Ferrari won the NCAA title: “He talks a big game, and he shows a big game.”
Ferrari’s still flexing at opponents. So far in the 2021-22 season, he is 7-0 and ranked No. 1 at 197 pounds.
Mike Gundy’s Best Year Coaching
To my knowledge, Kyle Boone was the first one beating this drum, but I quickly joined the band and so should you. This has been Mike Gundy’s best job as a head coach.
The Cowboys finished No. 1 in the league in the regular season and made their first Big 12 Championship ever. They’ve tied a program record with 12 wins and could set the record on Saturday. They narrowly missed out on what would have been their first conference title in a decade and were this close to having more than a puncher’s chance at inclusion in the College Football Playoff. And they did all of that without being ranked in the preseason AP Top 25.
Football is a game of inches. Most years you could point to a half-dozen or more plays of a yard or two that would have made the difference between a team reaching its goals and falling short. This year for the Cowboys, it was just one play, and not much more than one inch. And it was all that kept them from making history.
A coach’s job is to put his players in the position to win. Was it always perfect? No. But Gundy did his job and did it in a way he’s never done before.
If OSU scores late against Baylor and leapfrogs Cincinnati for a Final Four spot, does Gundy earn another Coach of the Year award instead of Luke Fickell. I think so.
Bedlam Wins Mean More
OSU has made a consistent habit of dominating OU in athletics in recent history, but this year it meant more.
This summer, Oklahoma State closed out the 2020-21 year with another Phillips 66 Bedlam Series win, the school’s seventh in the last eight years. But the 23-12 margin (across all athletics) represented the biggest OSU win in series history.
And that tally was recorded months before Collin Oliver army-crawled to Caleb Williams and then wrapped up his ankle to seal Mike Gundy’s third football win over the Sooners.
Big 12 Realignment
Speaking of that, there is not one sports storyline that had more impact on OSU than the OU-Texit® that rocked the world of college sports, as well as the ensuring moves that reshaped it.
The Big 12’s bell cows announced their intentions to mosey off toward the greener pastures of the Southeast this summer. That left the rest of the league scrambling, especially Oklahoma State. Every couple of days a new storyline surfaced and led the news. Would Big 12’s top schools get poached by other league? Would there be a Big 12 at all?
But, in short order, the conference came up with a plan to add BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. How well those moves will play out for the strength of the league remains to be seen, but it looks like Bob Bowlsby & Co. did the best they could and solidified the league’s future.
That foursome represents some household names when it comes to the revenue sports. Cincy is in the Final Four this year in football. Houston was in the Final Four in men’s hoops. And three of the four schools made the final CFP rankings with Cincy and BYU out-ranking Oklahoma. That’s not to mentioned Texas wasn’t even bowl eligible.
As for OU and Texas, they will be missed in terms of rivalry capital (and actual capital). But as far as OSU is concerned, if this was the final edition of the lopsided Bedlam football game played in Stillwater, at least the Cowboys got the last laugh.