Grad transfer Cunningham sparks Louisville’s national rise
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Christen Cunningham’s sole focus a year ago was recovering from illness and salvaging what remained of his senior season at Samford.
Playing at Louisville or anywhere in the Atlantic Coast Conference never crossed his mind, which makes his current situation all the more satisfying.
Not only is Cunningham healthy again, the graduate transfer has the newly ranked Cardinals on a roll thanks to his play at point guard. His 11-assist, turnover-free effort in last week’s rout of Georgia Tech was just the program’s third such performance in 47 years and marked his second consecutive game with a career best in assists. The effort highlighted a third straight win and helped No. 23 Louisville (13-5, 4-1) climb back in the rankings for the first time since early last season.
“That’s something I’ve been trying to do, cut down on my turnovers,” said Cunningham, one of three grad transfers signed by first-year coach Chris Mack. “I always look to get my guys involved. It means a lot just to be in great company.”
This season was expected to be transitional for Louisville and Mack, who was hired last March to replace interim coach David Padgett after a tumultuous 2017-18 campaign. Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino was fired before the season after the school acknowledged its involvement in a federal bribery investigation of college basketball, and the NCAA stripped the Cardinals of their 2013 NCAA championship last February as discipline for a sex scandal.
The Cardinals also lost point guard Quentin Snider and three other starters from a 22-14 team that reached the NIT quarterfinals. Graduate transfers often provide a quick solution for first-year coaches, and Mack saw the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Cunningham as one who could provide stability and leadership.
Mack has not been disappointed in his co-captain.
“With an inexperienced crew, you need a lot of experience to get people in the right spots,” Mack said earlier this month.
“From (Samford coach) Scott Padgett to different people in CC’s league, they all felt like he was a gamer because he did what the game told him to,” Mack said. “You could trust that when the ball was in his hands, he could make the right play. That’s what we’ve found since we’ve gotten him.”
Despite playing in just the first nine games last season for the Southern Conference Bulldogs, Cunningham graduated as Samford’s career assists leader (514) and 13th all-time scorer with 1,283 points. The NCAA granted him a medical waiver for a fifth season that opened the door to come to Louisville, but that chapter started slow with just 21 points and nine assists through four games.
The Georgetown, Kentucky, native has raised his play over the past seven games, averaging 14.1 points on 64 percent shooting and six assists during that stretch. He ranks fifth in the ACC at 4.2 assists, fourth in assist/turnover ratio at 2.6 and is second on the team in scoring at 10.5 points per contest entering Thursday night’s ACC matchup against No. 21 North Carolina State (15-3, 3-2).
Cunningham’s mother, Marilyn Wilson, always believed her son could play at the highest level. She takes pride in his growth by being his toughest critic and reminding him not to look past any opponent — especially in college basketball’s toughest conference.
“It makes me feel great,” Wilson said. “When he’s challenged more, he steps up more. I tell him he has to play at a high level every night, and I’m grateful to see he’s doing that. It’s beyond words.”
Cunningham has bigger goals, including getting Louisville back in the NCAA Tournament, which would mark his only trip to the Big Dance. That depends on navigating the Wolfpack on Thursday along with a challenging stretch run that includes UNC, No. 2 Duke and third-ranked Virginia — twice.
A tough task for sure, but one Cunningham gladly embraces after wondering when he’d ever get well.
“I think about it about it a lot,” he said of the postseason, “but at the same time I realize how hard it is to get wins in the ACC.
“We’ve got to keep plucking away and getting wins.”