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‘Cowboy’ Brock Cunningham helps bring the juice for Texas basketball

For years under Shaka Smart, the Longhorns struggled to build an identity as a tough team, but the Austin Westlake product brings it in spades.

NCAA Basketball: Sam Houston State at Texas Austin American-Statesman-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Brock Cunningham misses the fans during road games.

The scrappy redshirt sophomore Texas Longhorns guard revels in the opportunity to be a villain, the basketball version of a professional wrestling heel.

But with over 4,000 fans attending Texas Tech’s last home game in early February, the United Supermark Arena crowd may provide Cunningham exactly what he loves on Saturday — the type of hatred raining down from the stands that gets him going.

“I would hope so,” Cunningham said on Thursday when he was asked if he would be the Big 12’s biggest villain if there were fans allowed at every road game. “I thought it would be a lot of fun if that was the case, if people were yelling at me. Makes me feel like I’m doing something right for the Longhorns.”

That’s exactly what Cunningham did in the 68-58 Texas win over Texas Tech in Lubbock last year that gave the Longhorns a four-game winning streak just days before the postseason was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As Cunningham’s role increased during that late stretch due to injuries, the Austin Westlake product played 22 minutes against the Red Raiders, scoring eight points on 3-of-3 shooting, including two three-pointers, and adding all of his usual hustle plays like five rebounds, an assist, two steals, and, of course, two fouls.

Since then, Cunningham has fully embraced his role of bringing juice to the Texas team. The 6’5, 204-pounder still doesn’t score much, averaging 1.4 points per game just like last season despite averaging nearly seven more minutes per contest, and he’s still struggling with consistency on his three-point shot, but he’s doing all the little things, even the ones that don’t show up in the box score. Most importantly, he’s happy with that role.

“No, I love it,” Cunningham said. “I love the role that Coach Smart has set out for me and it’s something that I can do really well and the skill stuff will come with time and getting more comfortable with the game, but I love the position I’m at.”

Sophomore forward Kai Jones said that Cunningham is “like a cowboy out there, just wild,” the type of energy that rubs off on teammates like Jones, helping inspire them to play harder.

On Tuesday against Kansas, Cunningham’s defense and hustle helped Texas overcome a 14-point first-half lead and hold the Jayhawks to under 30-percent shooting in the final 20 minutes, of which Cunningham played 13, recording four rebounds, an assist, and a steal.

That type of focus on rebounding and defense is something Cunningham says comes naturally to him since he’s not as skilled offensively as his teammates in the Texas frontcourt, but it hasn’t always been easy on the Forty Acres. Cunningham redshirted his first season and then played sparingly for months last season. In fact, he only appeared in one game between late November and late January. It was a frustrating time for Cunningham, with Smart admitting that he wasn’t always Cunningham’s favorite person over that stretch.

But instead of considering transferring, Cunningham decided to stick it out.

“For me, I felt like I needed to work through freshmen and sophomore year and not run away from the challenge and I’m unbelievably grateful that I did stay and work through those tough times,” Cunningham said.

The relationship between Smart and Cunningham has grown over time as a result, blossoming into one of mutual respect as Cunningham matured and Smart was more able to trust Cunningham to fulfill his role and find times to utilize his defense and rebounding — Cunningham admitted that he wasn’t always consistent enough to earn playing time as a redshirt freshman.

In practice, however, Cunningham’s motor regularly runs hot enough that he inevitably gets on the nerves of his teammates. Has Jones ever had a moment when he had to ask Cunningham to chill out? Of course he has.

“I think everybody’s had a moment like that,” Jones said with a laugh. “But I think it’s a great thing.”

As a rebounder, Cunningham models his game after Dennis Rodman, one of the best undersized rebounders in NBA history along with Charles Barkley. Often going against bigger players in the paint, and without the athleticism of someone like Jericho Sims or Kai Jones or Greg Brown III, Cunningham knows that for him, as it was for Rodman, it’s all about positioning and timing.

“Getting position and following the ball in the air is everything for me because I can’t jump up to 12 feet, so I’ve got to go and pick it when it’s on the ground or poke it out of people’s hands. Just the timing for me is huge when it comes to rebounding,” Cunningham said.

He joked that on some days he can’t even touch 10 feet, so he keeps his focus on all the ways that he can impact the game.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Cunningham said of not scoring. “I’m happy with four loose balls, two fouls, and maybe a charge here and there. That’s a great game.”

Not without a little bit of trash talking, though, generally involving labeling an opposing player as soft with a profanity added, according to Jones.

“It’s a lot of fun get back to my roots and let the other team know what I’m about,” Cunningham said.