Freshmen ties headline UA-Oklahoma State with both teams seeking an NCAA Tourney resume win

Pig Trail Nation

LITTLE ROCK — The freshmen have factored in big for both Arkansas and Oklahoma State as the regular-season portion of 2020-21 rounds the turn into the back stretch, and though both teams are looking for a signature non-conference win when they meet up Saturday in the SEC / Big 12 Challenge in Stillwater, Okla., it’s the rookies and their ties to each other and both programs that offer the most compelling storylines as a buildup to the matchup.

First and foremost, there’s the Hogs’ Moses Moodyand the Cowboys’ Cade Cunningham angle — a pair that began as competitive rivals before evolving into teammates for two seasons at high school national powerhouse Montverde Academy (Fla.) while battling each other in grassroots hoops in the offseason. At present, they lead their teams in scoring as centerpieces in their programs while eyeing the 2021 NBA Draft that’s just months away as both are likely wrapping up one-and-done college campaigns.

But it doesn’t end there. 

Arkansas freshman guard Davonte “Devo” Daviswas once committed to Oklahoma State before an 11-day whirlwind recruitment with Arkansas ensued after he de-committed from the Cowboys on Oct. 1, 2019, leading to a quick pledge to the Hogs on Oct. 12, 2019. Arkansas freshman big man Jaylin Williamsnamed OSU among his final 5 schools and seriously considered playing in Stillwater before ultimately committing to and signing with Arkansas. And finally, OSU freshman guard Rondel Walker took an unofficial visit to Arkansas in August 2019, shortly thereafter he named Arkansas among his top 5 schools, and according to multiple sources (at the time) he sought to take a quick-turnaround second visit to Arkansas and commit to the Razorbacks on his birthday in late September before ultimately committing to and signing with OSU. 

Moody, Davis, Williams, and freshman guard KK Robinson (out for the season following foot surgery earlier this month) were all Top 100-ranked prospects from the state of Arkansas, comprising a 2020 high school recruiting class that ESPN ranked as the 5th best in the nation. Cunningham — arguably the top prospect in the nation in 2020 and projected by many to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft — and Walker were the Cowboys’ two highest-rated recruits in a 5-player 2020 high school class that ESPN ranked as the 8th best in the nation.

The transition from high school straight into high-major college basketball has revealed the quality of this group while foreshadowing big things to come. But let’s not talk about the present, or the future, until we first turn back the clock a few years to examine a bit more closely the connections, twists, and ties that played out.

It was a weekend in October 2017 when Moody and Cunningham went head-to-head in the Pangos All South frosh / soph camp in Dallas-Fort Worth. There was so much buzz surrounding the two that Pangos organizers changed the team and game format to make sure Moody and Cunningham competed against each other in the event. Moody was approaching the start of his sophomore high school season (’17-18) at North Little Rock that would eventually result in a 7A state championship with him being named MVP of the title game, while Cunningham was a high school sophomore-to-be in Arlington, Texas. 

A few months later, the pair would leave home, Florida-bound, to join up with Kevin Boyle’s prestigious Montverde Academy basketball program, which had produced multiple NBA Draft lottery picks in recent years including the likes of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, D’Angelo Russell, and RJ Barrett. Roommates at Montverde during their junior and senior seasons, Moody and Cunningham helped lead the Eagles to the Geico national championship tournament semifinals in ’18-19 before battling against each other on different teams during the 2019 spring and summer Nike EYBL grassroots circuit. Both were also part of the U.S. Olympic U16 and U17 programs spanning a couple of years.

Finally as seniors, Moody (6-6 shooting guard from Little Rock) and Cunningham (6-8 point guard) were full-time starters who along with a host of other 5-star talents led Montverde to a wire-to-wire national No. 1 ranking, a perfect 25-0 record against an elite national schedule with an average winning margin approaching 40 points per game, and the top-seed in the eight-team ’19-20 Geico national championship tournament before it was cancelled in the spring due to the covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, many national high school basketball analysts and gurus have determined the ’19-20 Montverde squad to be the best high school team of all high school teams. Ever.

With all that history and with ties that bind on many levels, no quarter will be given on Saturday when (or if?) day-one college stars Moody and Cunningham square off yet again. Game time is 3 p.m. CT and will be televised on ESPN2.

“I talked to him a couple of days ago,” Moody said Thursday of his communication with Cunningham earlier this week leading up to the tilt. “But it was just off-basketball stuff … nothing special. Before we actually went to Montverde, we were already cool. We knew each other, just being around playing each other, all of that but we weren’t as close. Obviously, we went to Montverde and were roommates for two years so that made it a pretty close relationship. Since then, we’ve just still been close and talking to each other.

“It’s respect and it’s support in that aspect (a friend and former teammate preparing for the next level), but we’re both competitive and we’ve been that way since day one. It’s just a good balance.”

A long and sturdy perimeter player with poise as a shooter-scorer, Moody leads the Razorbacks (13-4, 5-4 SEC) in minutes at 32.1 per game, scoring at 16.6 points (7th in the SEC) and his 5.6 rebounds ranks third on the team (17th in the SEC) as he’s 1 of only 4 freshmen in Division 1 basketball averaging at least 16 points and 5.5 rebounds per outing. He’s shooting 44.6% from the field, including 35.8% from 3, and 80.7% from the free throw line. His 71 made free throws ranks third in the SEC. Moody has scored 20-plus points a total five times (three times in league play), including a career-high 28 points against Alabama on Jan. 16. He’s recorded one double-double (18 points and 10 rebounds against then-No. 12 Missouri on Jan. 2), and he’s once been named SEC Freshman of the Week following a 24-point, 9-rebound effort in a win over Texas-Arlington in early December.

A big point guard whose all-around game flashes reminders of Simmons (but with more polish as a scorer), Cunningham leads the Cowboys (10-4, 4-4 Big 12) and the Big 12 in scoring at 17.8 points per game to go with 6.2 rebounds for 8th in the Big 12, 3.8 assists for 10th in the Big 12, 1.2 steals, and 1.0 block in 33.8 minutes per game while shooting 45.6% field goals, including 38.8% from 3, and 81.7% free throws. He’s scored 20 or more points five times, including a career-high 29 points against Oral Roberts in December. He has one double-double — 21 points and 10 rebounds in his collegiate debut against Texas-Arlington in November. Cunningham averaged 15.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.0 block in two wins over ranked teams — then-No. 6 Kansas and then-No. 13 Texas Tech.

Cunningham missed OSU’s two most-recent games — a loss against No. 2 Baylor followed by a win over Iowa State on Monday — due to covod-19 protocols, and he’s been listed as “day to day” this week ahead of the Challenge. But Moody was prepared with a brief scouting report on his friend and former teammate in anticipation of Cunningham playing on Saturday.

“I know Cade — Cade likes to play off ball screens, he likes to get other people involved,” said Moody, who not only competed against Cunningham in grassroots play but also went head-to-head against him in Montverde practices that were typically more competitive than Montverde’s games.

Regardless of how any individual matchups turn out on Saturday, both players are destined for postseason all-league honors, and both will likely meet up again on an NBA court somewhere next season.

As for Davis, his Razorbacks tale is best told from the present looking back. The 6-3 combo guard and Jacksonville native gradually emerged in the non-conference as he’s grown into a spirited, high-energy, slashing, hustling contributor who embraces his role in the rotation, and he averages 6.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.1 steals in 16.8 minutes per game while shooting 51.3% from the field, including 2-of-5 from 3 for 40%, and 62.5% free throws. Playing mostly off the bench, Davis — he’s scored in double-figures four times — has put together huge-impact performances in the Hogs’ 5 league wins, including his career-high 20-point, 7-rebound, 6-assist effort in a home win over Georgia in January. He was also a catalyst in Arkansas’ comeback from a 19-point deficit against Auburn on Jan. 20 with 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists in a 75-73 win.

In Arkansas’ most-recent game — a 74-59 victory over Ole Miss on Wednesday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville — Davis was once again a sparkplug off the bench as he contributed 14 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 assist. It wasn’t the first time that Head Hog Eric Musselman and Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis found themselves inside the same Arkansas basketball venue at the same time while watching Davis play. 

Rewind to October 2019 for Davis’ fast-track Hog recruitment, a scenario that was surreal beyond just the speediness of it. OSU head coach Mike Boynton had made Davis a priority and Davis had been committed to OSU since December 2018, but he announced his de-commitment on Oct. 1, 2019. By Saturday, Oct. 5, Davis was on Arkansas’ campus for an unofficial visit, then 4 days later while practicing with his Jacksonville High School teammates in a makeshift elementary school box-gym (no bleachers, just a stage at one end and a classroom at the other) off the beaten path that was accessed by crossing a mini wooden bridge that spanned a mini-creek at the side of the school, Davis and his grandparents (observing practice) were expecting coaches from Ole Miss and Arkansas to be in attendance. 

Ole Miss’ Kermit Davis and an assistant were there early, while Musselman and Hogs assistant coach Corey Williams were en route following a recruiting trip to Memphis earlier in the day. All the coaches had an opportunity to visit in the gym with Davis and his family, but Musselman and Williams ended up in that classroom embedded inside the gym with Davis and his grandparents, sitting in grade-school desk chairs behind closed doors, and when they emerged from what was an emotional meeting Davis had literally just received his Arkansas offer. Three days later on Oct., 12, he committed to the Hogs as the first domino in what became the best recruiting class at Arkansas in years.

“I think that, at least from my initial conversations with Devo, it seemed like he was really excited to become a Razorback player and that it was really important to him,” Musselman said during his Thursday press conference. “I didn’t offer him a scholarship until I did it face-to-face. The excitement in his family, there were people that teared up and I could tell how powerful it was. It was an eye-opening experience for me to offer a scholarship to an in-state player and see family members actually come to tears. It was really powerful for me to see, for sure.”

Williams‘ commitment journey to Arkansas did not require the same U-turn from Stillwater to Fayetteville that Davis’ did, but along with 2020 West Memphis prospect Chris Moore (now a freshman forward at Auburn) Williams took long looks at (and perhaps gave extra consideration to) OSU and Auburn before pledging to the Hogs. The 6-10, 245-pound forward / center from Fort Smith was the biggest pleasant surprise during Arkansas’ preseason practices as he earned high praise for his court awareness and high basketball IQ, soft hands and ball skill for a big including passing and face-up shooting, and volume rebounding. Williams was touted by Arkansas’ coaching staff as a strong candidate to earn a starting role or a 6th-man type role off the bench as the start of regular season in late November was nearing, but in the Hogs’ soft eight-game non-conference slate Williams failed to play twice and was often given limited minutes when he did see the floor.

But conference play has been a bit different as Williams has started twice while increasing his playing time during a 6-game stretch and bringing significant value in the Hogs’ league success, specifically in home wins over Georgia and Auburn. Against the Tigers, Williams started the second half and played all 20 minutes as he registered 7 points, a team-high 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists, and 1 steal while helping his team erase a 12-point halftime deficit. His presence at both ends of the floor helped Arkansas change the narrative in a game that Auburn controlled for most of the first half.

Williams is averaging 3.1 points and 4.3 rebounds in 14.3 minutes per game while shooting 17-of-30 from the field for 56.7%, including 5-of-13 from 3 for 38.5%, and 8-of-10 free throws for 80%. His per 40-minute numbers include 11.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Williams has two 10-rebound games and has led Arkansas in rebounding four times, including 3 of the Hogs’ last 6 games. He’s also emerged as Arkansas’ most consistent charge-taker defensively. 

Walker (6-4 guard, Midwest City, Okla.) is the third-leading scorer for the Cowboys, averaging 9.9 points to go with 2.8 rebounds in 24.8 minutes per game while shooting 43.2% field goals, including 35.8% from 3, and 70% free throws. His best game was his most-recent outing, a 20-point effort (including 4-of-8 shooting from 3) in Monday’s 81-60 win against short-handed Iowa State.

Although Walker and Cunningham did not play together in high school like Moody and Cunningham did, Walker and Cunningham were spring and summer grassroots teammates with the 17U Texas Titans on the Nike EYBL circuit where they competed against Moody and 17U Brad Beal Elite.

OSU freshmen Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe (6-7 forward from Canada) factors big into OSU’s success as he has started 6 times and is averaging 9.0 points and 5.2 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game while shooting 50.5% from the field.

While freshman storylines are as compelling as can be for a late-January non-conference game, it’s the shine of a Quad-1 win opportunity that means the most for both teams with a dash of league pride on the line as the Hogs and Cowboys meet for the third time in the last five years in the Challenge (the teams are 1-1 in the previous two head-to-head meetings).

Moody understands what matters most come Saturday.

“It’s a cool matchup to have, it’s a great game to have on the schedule, but when it comes down to it, we’re in college now,” Moody said. “It’s not AAU basketball when it’s the two players matched up going one-on-one. We’re in college systems now. It’s more organized, so it’s more about the win than the matchup.”

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