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.
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.
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.”