NORTH AUGUSTA — Just about all eyes were on Cade Cunningham as the Nike Elite Youth Basketball circuit transitioned to North Augusta for the week.
That's no small statement to make when it comes to the best of the best in youth hoops, but Cunningham truly has been far and away the best player for a Texas Titans team that came into Peach Jam as the favorite to win the 17U title.
Cunningham, a 6-foot-7 point forward, earned EYBL MVP honors after averaging 25.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game while leading the Titans to a 12-1 record. He's ranked as the No. 2 recruit in the country for the class of 2020, and 247Sports predicts that he'll sign to play at Oklahoma State for former Gamecock point guard and assistant coach Mike Boynton.
He's already turned in two of the top performances of the week while leading Texas Titans to a 2-0 start – their third game was a 9 p.m. start Thursday against Team Durant – and he shows no signs of slowing down with two games to play Friday.
Cunningham scored 31 points on 14-for-20 shooting and added seven rebounds and six assists Wednesday in a 101-86 win over Seattle Rotary Style, then came back out Thursday morning and had 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists as Texas Titans pulled away for an 86-72 win over Houston Hoops.
In Thursday's game, Cunningham showed how effortless his game can look despite how many responsibilities he simultaneously shoulders. Those 29 points came on 12-for-15 shooting, and most of those shots were high-percentage shots – he did plenty of damage in the paint and in transition, and he routinely took on larger defenders but finished strong near the basket. He played with intensity on defense and hustled for rebounds, and he displayed his court vision by setting up his teammates for easy buckets.
He also served as a calming influence when the game was close and emotions ran high, commanding the ball and keeping his teammates steady as they went on a big run late in the third quarter to gain the upper hand.
Cunningham and Texas Titans play twice Friday – at noon against Alabama Fusion and at 9 p.m. against PSA Cardinals – against teams that will have at least one loss. If the MVP and his teammates continue this pace, their championship chances should only get stronger.
Other hot starts
Texas Titans were one of six 17U teams to start pool play with a 2-0 record. Wisconsin's Phenom University took the early lead in Pool B with a four-point win over Team Final and a 27-point thrashing of The Family Detroit; defending champions Team Takeover and AOT Running Rebels were both 2-0 atop Pool C and could both be 4-0 when they play each other at 6 p.m. Friday in the pool play finale; Nightrydas Elite and Indy Heat – owner of the most dominant performance of the week so far with a 115-65 win Thursday over Mac Irvin Fire – both started 2-0 in Pool D and play each other at 10:30 a.m. Friday.
Pool play for all three divisions wraps up Friday, and tournament play will begin with Saturday's quarterfinals and semifinals.
The lobby near Court 3 at Riverview Park Activities Center was already crowded at 3 p.m. Thursday with fans waiting outside of locked doors for the chance to see Bronny James – and potentially LeBron on the sideline – when Strive for Greatness took on Team Final for a 4:30 p.m. tipoff. Not long after that, the area around the adjacent Court 4 was just as packed – plenty of people were posting up to watch Bates Fundamentals and PSA Cardinals, but most were looking for a less jammed route over to Court 3.
That the game was rescheduled from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. only further inflamed talks of a LeBron appearance, but for the second straight day fans were given the pretty sweet consolation prize of instead just watching a competitive, exciting game of hoops in the E15 division. Strive for Greatness suffered its second consecutive tough loss, meaning their stay at Peach Jam won't extend into the weekend. Their finale will be at 4:30 p.m. Friday against Team Melo.