Bryce Cotton hopes to wrap up an excellent (and unlikely) college basketball career with a trip to the tournament
Bryce Cotton got to take a little break last Saturday, which is the last thing he wanted to do.
The time off came during the first half of a critical game for his college basketball team. Providence College was visiting highly ranked Creighton, and a win could vastly improve the Friars' chances of ending a long absence from the NCAA Tournament.
But Cotton wasn't available for a three-minute span early in Providence's 88-73 loss because of rare foul trouble. The Palo Verde High School graduate ended up playing 37 minutes and scoring a team-high 23 points to go with six rebounds and four assists.
Most of those statistics would pass muster with Cotton except for the first one: his time on the court. Because, as far as Cotton is concerned, he should only leave the court when the game is over.
College games have 40 minutes of action. Cotton is averaging 40.1 minutes per game, the result of Providence having played four overtime games (two of which went to double OT) and the fact that there's pretty much no one else for the Friars to put at his point guard position.
"I don't mind it at all," said Cotton, who before Saturday had played all 180 minutes of the Friars' previous four games—which included both double-OT games—and who hadn't sat for more than two minutes of a game since early December. "This is by necessity because of lack of depth. I've had to do this pretty much from my sophomore year to now."
Cotton is generously listed at 6 feet 1, but when asked by phone last week how tall he is, he hedged between 5-11 and 6 feet before sheepishly saying, "Let's just stick with 6-1." He's also 170 pounds soaking wet, which is what he tends to be after each and every game, practice and workout, a testament to his dedication and unwillingness to slack off for even a second.
Cotton's secrets for durability are a balanced diet and the occasional icy plunge.
"I hop in the cold tub for 15 minutes. That seems to rejuvenate me; then I'm off my feet the rest of the day," he said.
(I tried my wife's at-home workout regimen for between roller derby practices, and after 10 minutes I was ready to die. The ice tub would have just been to preserve my body for organ harvesting.)
Now a senior, Cotton is nearing the end of a career full of stellar numbers and unquantifiable determination. This season he's averaging 21.7 points per game, which is among the top 10 of all the guys from more than 350 Division I college basketball teams, along with 5.9 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game.
Pretty darn good numbers for someone who left Tucson four years ago with no idea where he'd end up playing college hoops because it seemed like no one wanted him.
"I didn't have a scholarship from Division I or Division II after I graduated," said Cotton, who averaged close to 24 points a game for Palo Verde during his senior season in 2009-2010, leading the Titans to the Class 4A semifinals.
Instead, Cotton had to market himself to colleges through a meat market-like process that saw him play in a series of "unsigned senior" showcases during the summer of 2010. The effort paid off, though, when then-Providence coach Keno Davis and his staff spotted Cotton.
"They reached out to me, asked for some game film ... and I became a Friar," he said.
Cotton was a key reserve as a freshman, averaging four points and playing 15 minutes per game on a Providence team that would go 15-17 and see Davis get fired after three seasons. The school brought in Ed Cooley, who quickly realized what he had in Cotton, and the following year Cotton was playing more than 38 minutes a night and averaging 14.3 points per game.
He upped that average to 19.7 per game as a junior, and entering Thursday's game against St. John's in the Big East tournament, he is fifth on Providence's all-time scoring list with 1,886 points.
"It's been an amazing four years," Cotton said. "I knew the end would come sooner or later, but I'm not letting that sink in. I'm trying to take this season as far as it can go."
Climbing the scoring chart is nice, but what Cotton really wants is to be part of a milestone at Providence. The school hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2004, and with the Big East tourney starting, the Friars are part of that group of teams playing on what's known as "the bubble" in college basketball.
At 20-11, Providence finished fourth in the Big East but is currently not projected to be in the NCAA field by most college hoops experts. The Friars need to win at least one more game, if not more. But that first one happens to be against the school (St. John's) that calls Big East tourney site Madison Square Garden its unofficial home court.
Providence beat St. John's on the road in double overtime in January, but that was at the Red Storm's on-campus court in Jamaica, N.Y.
If the Friars win the Big East tourney they get an automatic bid to the NCAA tourney. Otherwise, they will have to hope for an at-large bid. As a low seed, Providence could end up getting shipped anywhere for a first-round game, even to San Diego, which would make it possible for Cotton's large Tucson family to make the drive and see him play.
"That would be nice, but at the end of the day I just want to get in," Cotton said. "Whether it's on TV or in person, I just want them to get to see me."
Once his college run ends in the next few weeks—if Providence doesn't make the NCAA field, it'll likely be a high seed in the second-tier NIT— Cotton will turn his attention toward making it into the NBA, a dream he's had "since I was a little kid." He looks to the likes of current diminutive pros Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson and retired mini-superstar Allen Iverson as role models.
"With the way the game has changed, I don't think it's as hard for small guys to make it in the NBA," he said. "A lot of guys are excelling. I don't try to avoid contact. I'm not afraid to go up against the bigger guys. I'm usually the smallest guy on the court."