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Cunningham marches into MSU playing time on court

February 23, 2013

Mississippi State's Tyson Cunningham (24) plays defense against LSU during a game earlier this season. (Photo by Kim Murrell, SDN)

Tyson Cunningham's dream in high school was to play college basketball.

Little did he know his journey to college basketball included playing on the drum line and being a practice player for the women's basketball team.

"In high school, I use to tell guys 'I'm going to play basketball in college,'" Cunningham said of his days at Columbus High School. "I wasn't recruited or anything. I just had the faith to believe that I was going to play."

His freshman and sophomore year, he played bass drum in the band at Mississippi State. 

During his sophomore year, Cunningham decided to give basketball a try. He knew he probably couldn't make the men's basketball team right away, so he did the next best thing. He decided to help the women's program out.

"(In) my second year, I was just trying to get my foot into the door," Cunningham said. "(I was) just trying to do whatever I could. I ended up going to the women's program and asking if I could be a practice player. They let me."

While being on the practice squad for the MSU women's team, Cunningham honed his skills at the Sanderson Center.

There he played with the likes of Dee Bost, who was on men's basketball team. 

"When I played with the guys, Dee and the others in the Sanderson while I was on the women's practice team, they started putting in a word for me," Cunningham said. "My name started to go around in the basketball office.The door just opened."

Cunningham was given the opportunity to try out for the men's team in the summer of 2011. 

He made the team as a walk-on.

There wasn't much playing time for Cunningham as a sophomore, but he did see some time off the bench down the stretch in games where things were already decided.

As a junior, his role has increased dramatically along with senior walk-on Baxter Price.

"I can't really say," Cunningham said of he knew his role was going to increase this season. "You prepare yourself during the offseason, (and) during the summer coming up to the season. You're just ready for anything. I'm just grateful to have this opportunity. I prepare myself in practice hard (and) expecting to play."

With first-year head coach Rick Ray, and the lack of depth on the team due to transfers, injuries and suspensions, Cunningham has seen his fair share of playing time this season.

Cunningham has played in all 25 games this season and started four of them. He is averaging 21.2 minutes per game and 2.6 points per game.

"If anybody wants to know who to hire on our team, hire Tyson Cunningham," Ray said. "I don't care what the job is or what sort of field it's in."

Cunningham has taken on a leadership role on a team that has only one scholarship senior in Wendell Lewis. Lewis has been sidelined for the rest of the season with a knee injury.

"We don't have a guy with experience – playing experience – as far as last year," Cunningham said. "I've taken on the role. I can be a leader. I can help my teammates in anyway I can on and off the court."

Cunningham has been outspoken in practice and in games on the court. He also can be heard in the locker room.

"Tyson's a great guy," MSU freshman Fred Thomas said. "He is always motivating us, patting us on the back and saying 'let's go, let's go.' He sacrifices his body for us by taking charges. He'll do anything for the team."

Cunningham married his high school sweetheart on Sept. 29, 2012. His maturity and experience have given Ray someone to turn to for a leader. 

As for what Cunningham wants to do after he graduates, it's simple. He is already doing it.

"I know it will be in the music field," Cunningham said. "I'm already a worship leader at my church. I know more than likely I'm going to be recording music and things of that nature. I'm going to continue to be a worship leader."

Cunningham plays any kind of drum, the piano, bass guitar and lead guitar. He has sung the National Anthem at a few sporting events at Mississippi State.

He leads the music at New Baptist Temple Church in Columbus where his grandfather is the pastor.

Cunningham gets another chance to show his leadership when the Bulldogs (7-18, 2-11) host Vanderbilt (10-15, 4-9) today. Tipoff is set for 12:30 p.m. and can be seen on the SEC Network and WCBI locally.

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