Bryce Cotton, Providence’s marathon man, looking to lead the Friars on a run to the NCAA tournament

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source: AP
AP

Providence has found itself in double-overtime four times during Big East play this season. The most recent thriller came on Tuesday night against Marquette with the Friars’ NCAA tournament hopes undoubtedly on the line.

In his 50th minute of action — the fourth time he’s logged every minute of a double-overtime game in the past nine weeks — senior guard Bryce Cotton was able to make two winning plays with less than 10 seconds left and Marquette clinging to a 80-79 lead. As the Golden Eagles inbounded the ball, instead of fouling, Cotton went for a tie up, giving the Friars the ball back with the possession arrow.

Moments later, Cotton was fouled by Derrick Wilson. The once roaring Dunkin’ Donuts Center crowd became utterly silent as he drained his pair of free throws. On senior night, Cotton scored 25 points, grabbed seven rebounds and recorded nine assists in Providence’s 81-80 victory over Marquette. After shaking hands with the Golden Eagles, Cotton, who has racked up 1,207 minutes played in 30 games, had enough energy left in his 6-foot-1, 165-pound body to shout to his older brother, Justin Tarpley, in the stands.

“I was just telling him, ‘I told you. I told you. We did it.’ … stuff like that,” Cotton said. “Because where we come from there’s not a lot of opportunity to go to college and play sports. Since we’re here, you might as well take it as far as you can. That was a brief emotional moment me and my brother shared.”

Growing up on the north side of Tuscon, Cotton was frequently reminded by Justin, 29, of others who had the ability to do something great, only to be sidetracked and eventually lured down the wrong path.

“It wasn’t the best neighborhood to grow up in at a younger age, but my brother did a good job of keeping me away from any gangs that were around my neighborhood,” Cotton said. “He kept me focused. He did all the things an older brother should do.”

The focus drilled into him by his brother has stayed with Cotton. The latest example being his heads up play with nine seconds to go against Marquette, remembering not to foul, rather go for a steal or tie up, which set up Cotton’s heroics.

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For someone averaging 40.2 minutes per game, Cotton’s season has largely gone unnoticed, even if he doesn’t mind the lack of national recognition. He’s the reason why Providence is in the conversation for the program’s first NCAA tournament bid in a decade, though, he almost didn’t stick around to lead the charge.

In three seasons at Providence, head coach Ed Cooley has been able to land a handful of prized recruits to his hometown, players which would have given the Friars one of the nation’s most dangerous perimeter attacks. But several of those PC prospects never panned out the way the Friar faithful had envisioned when they had originally committed.

Providence native Ricky Ledo was ruled ineligible before the start of last season, declaring for the NBA draft that spring. Brandon Austin, a four-star small forward, was suspended indefinitely, along with Rodney Bullock, back in November. Austin has since transferred to Oregon.

Kris Dunn, the top point guard in the Class of 2012, has been plagued with shoulder injuries since the summer before his freshman year. He and Vincent Council were sidelined together for eight games last season, leaving ball-handling duties in the hands of Cotton. When it was announced in December that Dunn would be undergoing season-ending surgery on his right shoulder after appearing in only four games, Cotton was once again entrusted with running the offense.

“It wasn’t tough for me at all,” Cotton said. “People don’t realize that I played point guard my whole life until I came to college, so it wasn’t something that was new to me.

“Basically, it was me wiping off the rust. Due to some unfortunate circumstances I was able to showcase the ability not a lot of people knew I had.”

There weren’t a lot of people that knew much about Cotton as he made the journey from Arizona to Rhode Island to begin his collegiate career. He was not ranked by ESPN, while Rivals posted minimal information about him coming out of Palo Verde Magnet High School in 2010.

His state line reads 21.7 points and 5.9 assists per game. He’s had several clutch performances and his team has exceeded preseason expectations — picked sixth but currently third in the Big East behind two top-15 teams. You wonder why he doesn’t get more praise, more ink. Providence basketball has been down for the better part of a decade, and the Friars are still squarely on the bubble with a week and a half until Selection Sunday.

Then and now he chooses not to concern himself with the spotlight.

“I don’t think anything of it,” Cotton said. “My whole life I’ve flown under the radar and I’ve always had people question me about my play, my size. Honestly, I kind of like it like that. I just go out there and play my game. If people notice me, they do and if they don’t that’s not really my problem. I’m out there to win ball games.”

Tuesday night’s win marks the first time the Friars have won 20 games in a season since 2004. Cotton wants to end this year where that 2003-2004 Friars finished their season: in the NCAA tournament. However two years ago, it appeared Cotton wouldn’t even end his career in a Providence uniform, let alone lead the team to the Big Dance.

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Cotton was on the other side of the country, more than 2,500 miles away from his family. Twenty days after his sophomore season came to a close, his grandmother, Mary Portley, passed away at the age of 72.

It was at that point that Cotton, who had just finished his first year playing for Cooley, was thinking about transferring from Providence College.

“The loss of my grandmother really hit me,” he said. “That was the person I was closet to. That really hit me a lot. I didn’t want to be away from the rest of my family after a tough time like that. It had a lot to do with some other things, but that was one of the bigger factors that really hit me mentally.”

He was told to stay at Providence, that things would work out for the best. He grew up with a strong bond with his mother, grandmother and faith, and he needed guidance from all three in order to choose his next move in life. While back at home to attend his grandmother’s funeral, it was his mother, Yvonne Cotton, who passed along a message, which helped him return to Providence for his junior year.

“My mom had told me, my grandmother loved Coach Cooley and thought I would have a bright future there,” Cotton said. “To hear all those people encouraging me to stay and to hear my grandmother think I’d have a great future there as well, I felt that was God answering my prayers.

“From the looks of things, I made the right decision by staying.”

When Cotton went to Cooley, informing him that he may leave the program, Cooley remained patient and allowed Cotton to take the time he needed in order to make a decision. When Cotton elected to return to the Friars, it became the start of a growing relationship between player and coach, as Cotton’s role continued to expand.

“He’s done a really good job of bringing a lot of new attributes out of me, character traits I didn’t think I’d ever show,” Cotton said.

“Coming in I was more a lead by example guy, quiet, kept to myself. He brought to my attention, the importance of bringing along some of the younger guys. He forced me to not only be a vocal leader, but an emotional leader as well.”

Those new attributes Cotton has displayed under the tutelage of Cooley have blended quite well with the virtues his family and faith instilled in him at an early age. The leadership and emotions were there as he exited the Dunkin’ Donut Center floor for the final time, another big performance in another big game for the tournament-hungry Friars.

Regardless of the win on Tuesday, Providence continues to play with little room for error. If the Friars pull off an upset in Omaha, handing Creighton’s its only home loss or rally off some wins next week in New York at the Big East Tournament, then Cotton will get his chance to introduce himself to the nation on college basketball’s biggest stage. Any slip up, and, like his talented basketball career up until this point, it’ll continue to fly under the radar.

“Either we’ll rise to the occasion or we’ll fold,” he said. “I feel that we have too much that we’re playing for. This is something we don’t get another opportunity to do. We gotta do all we can to seize the moment and make sure it happens.”

Duke’s Marvin Bagley III to miss third straight game with knee issue

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Duke announced on Saturday afternoon that star freshman Marvin Bagley III will miss his third straight game with what they have dubbed a mild knee sprain.

Bagley suffered the injury in the first half at North Carolina, and while he played the rest of that game, he sat out wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

Both of those games came in Cameron Indoor Stadium. On Sunday, they’ll be playing on the road against a shorthanded No. 11 Clemson program.

In Bagley’s absence, Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Alex O’Connell have played more minutes while Grayson Allen has seemingly rediscovered his confidence. He’s averaging 24 points and six assists in the last two games.

Auburn’s leading shot-blocker suffers devastating ankle injury

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Things went from bad to worse for No. 10 Auburn in a hurry.

The Tigers currently trail South Carolina 46-25 at the half in Columbia. The deficit is not impossible to overcome — right, Michigan State? — but it will be very hard to do without their leading shot-blocker and best frontcourt defender.

With a minute left in the first half, Anfernee McLemore suffered a devastating left ankle injury that will almost assuredly end his season. Think Gordon Hayward. Video of the injury can be seen below. Be warned: It’s graphic, and McLemore can clearly be heard screaming in pain:

McLemore is one of just three players in Auburn’s rotation over 6-foot-7. He’s also Auburn’s leading shot-blockers at 2.7 per game and second-leading rebounder despite averaging fewer than 20 minutes. Without him available, Chuma Okeke and Horace Spencer are going to be asked to carry the entire load up front for a team whose biggest question mark was already their complete lack of size and depth up front.

This is a brutal blow for a team that has gone from an SEC afterthought to a projected No. 1 seed.

McLemore was taken off the floor on a stretcher.

No. 2 Michigan State matches largest comeback in a decade with 27-point rally over Northwestern

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Michigan State overcame a 27-point deficit on Saturday afternoon to beat Northwestern, 65-60, for a memorable Big Ten road win. It’s the biggest comeback win in Big Ten history while also matching the largest college basketball comeback of the last decade.

Trailing by 22 points at halftime and by 18 points with 14 minutes left, the comeback for the Spartans was slow and methodical at first, as Michigan State’s defense slowly suffocated the Wildcat offense.

And when the jumpers started falling with a Josh Langford (eight points) three with a little over 13 minutes left, the Spartans made their big push.

Sophomore point guard Cassius Winston was a major catalyst in the comeback for Michigan State as he buried multiple top-of-the-key threes and pull-up jumpers to help give the Spartans a new-found confidence. Winston finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists as he came through in a major way in the second half. With star Miles Bridges (eight points) battling foul trouble in the second half, Winston and other Michigan State role players stepped up in a big way. Big man Nick Ward grinded to 15 points and a lot of key stops on the defensive end. Matt McQuaid knocked down some big shots while taking a charge and playing well on both ends. Jaren Jackson had the go-ahead three-point play to finally give the Spartans their first lead.

This was a team comeback in which Michigan State (26-3, 14-2) used the sum of its parts to slowly dismantle Northwestern. It was one of the more impressive comebacks in recent memory. Doing commentary for Fox, Steve Lavin said this was one of the biggest one-half swings in his 30 years of being around Division I basketball. The win probability chart for this game is definitely unique.

While beating Northwestern isn’t some sort of monumental achievement this season, Michigan State didn’t have a huge comeback win this season. The biggest deficit that the Spartans had overcome to win this season was only 13 points. Now we know that Michigan State is capable of making a comeback from a very large deficit as they showed they’re capable of coming through with the offensive firepower. And Bridges, the team’s leading scorer, only had two field goals.

This is the Michigan State we’ve wanted to consistently see this season. Michigan State getting stops is nothing new. The Spartans held Northwestern scoreless for over 11 minutes at one point in the second half as the Wildcats were brutal shooting the ball in the first half. But if Michigan State’s offense gets rolling like that because of balanced inside/outside contributions from role players? That’s the Spartans everyone keeps hoping will show up in March.

No. 23 Oklahoma loses fifth-straight, Trae Young at risk of missing NCAA tournament?

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Trae Young has hit the freshman wall, and there are few signs that he is ready to break through to the other side.

Let’s start with the good news, I guess: In today’s 77-66 home loss to a Texas team that entered the day tied for eighth in the Big 12 standings, Young finally snapped his streak of 20 missed three-pointers. After starting off Saturday 0-for-4 after missing all nine of his threes at Texas Texas and his last seven threes at Iowa State, Young hit three of his last six triples.

He also made all nine of his free throws, extending that streak to nearly 30 consecutive makes, while scoring 26 points and committing fewer than four turnovers in a game for the first time since December 8th.

Those are all good things!

The problem, however, is that they came in Oklahoma’s fifth straight loss, their sixth loss in the last seven games and their eighth loss in their last ten games. The Sooners have been dreadful for more than a month, and it’s not going to get any easier; they play at Kansas on Monday.

The question “why?” is pretty simple, too. Young is struggling and the rest of the pieces on the roster just have not been good enough to be able to pick up the slack. Brady Manek is a spot-up shooter that has struggling shooting the ball. Kameron McGusty went from being a player that looked like a potential all-Big 12 guy last season to Just A Guy this season. Christian James hasn’t been bad, and Jamuni McNeace and Khadeem Lattin hold their own in the paint, but by and large Young’s supporting cast has not been providing enough support while Young has been in this slump.

The question of whether or not Oklahoma can turn this around is not quite so simple unless you know the reason for Young’s struggles. Has he simply found himself in a place where the grind of a full season of college basketball and two months of Big 12 play — a league where every team has a good-to-great player at the point — has worn him down physically and mentally, or has the blueprint for how to beat the Sooners become too prevalent?

Or is it all of the above?

If Young is gassed, that’s an issue that, in theory, can be solved.

If the Sooners, are a flawed roster that cannot function or win games when opponents sell out to stop their superstar freshman, that isn’t as easy to deal with. Rest can solve the former. You’re not solving the latter, you’re not bring more talent into the program, while Young is still on campus.

At 16-10 overall and 6-8 in the Big 12, Oklahoma still looks like a pretty safe bet to reach the NCAA tournament. For starters, they were listed as a No. 4 seed just six days ago when the Selection Committee unveiled their first iteration of the top 16 seeds. They also have six Quadrant 1 wins and no bad losses to their name. Their won-loss record is a casualty of the Big 12 meat-grinder.

But that doesn’t mean they are safe. If they finish up the Big 12 season going 1-3 — which is feasible given how they’ve played the last month and their remaining opponents: at Kansas, Kansas State, at Baylor, Oklahoma State — then they’ll be 7-11 in the league. No one in more than 25 years has reached the NCAA tournament with a league record four games under .500.

The Sooners aren’t doomed yet.

But it is time for them to figure their issues out.

PHOTOS: Miami, Syracuse wear shirts honoring Florida shooting victims

Photo via Mike Waters, Syracuse.com
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Syracuse is playing in Miami on Saturday, the first game that the Hurricanes have played at home since the shooting at Parkland, Florida’s, Stoneman Douglas High School.

Both teams wore warmup shirts honoring the victims of the shooting prior to the game:

Parkland and Coral Gables are about 50 miles apart, but both towns are suburbs with the same Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area.