By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Two years ago, Tyson Cunningham was a member of Mississippi State’s Famous Maroon Band drumline and practicing against the women’s basketball team.
Today, he averages 21.2 minutes per game for the men’s team, playing a key role despite being a walk-on.
Cunningham, a 6-foot-3 junior guard from Columbus, wasn’t recruited by SEC schools. That didn’t deter him, so he came to MSU, kept working out, and would often play pickup games with the men’s team at the Sanderson Center.
“I wasn’t recruited or anything, but I just had the faith to believe I was going to play,” Cunningham said.
He called then-coach Rick Stansbury to ask about walking on, and when Cunningham heard back, he got good news: He’d be able to try out. Stansbury had already heard of Cunningham from MSU players like Dee Bost.
“They were like, man, there’s this guy in the Sanderson that can shoot, coach,” Cunningham said. “So my name started to go around in the basketball office, and the door just opened.”
waiting his turn
He didn’t play much last season, but offseason attrition, injuries and suspensions have kept MSU’s numbers down. The Bulldogs (7-18, 2-11 SEC) have six available scholarship players entering today’s home game against Vanderbilt (10-15, 4-9).
Cunningham has mostly come off the bench – he has four starts – and doesn’t fill up the stat sheet. He’s averaging 2.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.
But that’s not what makes him valuable in first-year coach Rick Ray’s eyes. His best quality is communication and that’s especially important for a team full of freshmen and other newcomers.
“I know it seems like a small thing, but it’s contagious, and you want your team to be out there communicating,” Ray said. “There’s so many ball screens going on and screens being set, and trying to get guys in set plays.
“He’s by far the best (communitcator) on our team.”
“And the second thing is, you’ve always got a chance to be better at anything you do if you’re smart, and Tyson Cunningham is a smart kid.”
While he doesn’t shoot much, Cunningham can be an effective scorer. He’s made 39.6 percent of his shots, including a team-leading 44.4 percent from 3-point range. He’s made 88.9 percent of his free throws.
“If my teammates find me open, I pull the trigger,” Cunningham said. “I’m in here most days working on my shot a lot, so coach is telling me that is a carry-over to the game.”
Cunningham is also the kind of guy who can provide leadership to the team. He’s 22 years old, married, and is a worship leader at his church, New Baptist Temple in Columbus.
“Tyson’s a great guy. He sacrifices his body for us by taking charges,” freshman Fred Thomas said. “He’ll do anything for the team.”