Friars about to enter pressure cooker -- a familiar spot
FEB 24, 2014 9:11a ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- Will Providence College make the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade?
It seemed an appropriate question to ask senior do-everything point guard Bryce Cotton after the Friars outlasted the Butler Bulldogs on the road Sunday night behind Cotton's typical 28-point, 6-assist, 40-minute game. Providence is one of a handful of Big East teams that sit right at that 18-win, 50s-or-low-60s RPI bubble, along with St. John's and Xavier.
So I asked Cotton about how, despite the typical one-game-at-a-time thinking, he was feeling about this team's momentum, which had stalled with a 2-4 February until Sunday's win.
But head coach Ed Cooley jumped in instead.
"That's a question for me, not him," Cooley said, not letting his player answer.
Fair enough, Coach. He would know. After all, he's guided a decimated Providence squad to the bubble despite a season that had the potential to go off the rails early, with a season-ending injury to starting point guard Kris Dunn followed by the program's entire freshman class, Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock, being suspended for the season for an on-campus incident. (Austin, an athletic wing considered a top-50 recruit nationally, then transferred to Oregon.) It's Cooley's prerogative to try to wipe any long-term, NCAA tournament thinking from his players' minds.
"A lot of coaches don't like to talk about the tournament," Cooley said. "That's something that I've talked about with our players the last five games. It's the elephant in the room, but you've got to take it one game at a time. If you want to get to the blue carpet, where we haven't been in a long time, we better take care of business when we can."
Providence had a chance to have its bid secured by now, but February stumbles -- losses to St. John's, Xavier, Georgetown, and a double-overtime heartbreaker to Villanova -- put the tournament back in doubt for Cooley's team. It's been a season of missed opportunities for Providence, with two one-possession losses to top-15 RPI opponents, UMass and Villanova.
That doesn't take away from the fact that in his third year at Providence, the voluble Cooley has gotten this struggling program to find its sea legs. He's made Providence relevant through impressive nationally ranked recruiting classes. But so many of the recruiting splashes haven't panned out. There was the suspension of two players this season. A year before, Ricky Ledo was named a partial qualifier for the season and opted for the NBA Draft before ever playing a game in a Friars uniform. Something similar happened Cooley's first season with diminutive point guard Kiwi Gardner, who also never played at Providence.
All of which adds up to increased pressure on Cooley, and by extension on Cotton, who leads all of college basketball in the percentage of his team's minutes he's on the floor.
"Bryce, in our league and in the whole country, he's one elite players that's not spoken about on a national level enough," Cooley said. "This kid to my right is playing as well as any college basketball player in America. Man. Just look at what he's done for our program, and look at what he's done this year."
Cooley is not exaggerating. In a conference without Doug McDermott and his historically great play at Creighton, Cotton would be a hands-down choice for player of the year. It's an amazing story, a talent who flew way below the radar and had only one Division I scholarship offer, from Providence. This season, after Dunn's injury, Cotton has had to shift his position from shooting guard to point guard. He has done so with aplomb, averaging 39.9 minutes without showing signs of wear and tear. After moving to the point, he's doubled his assist output from a year before and still averages 21.5 points.
But the only great ending to this story is having Cotton experience March Madness. As Cooley said, Cotton deserves to play in the NCAA tournament just once in his college career. And that's very much up in the air.
By my crude estimations, Providence, which sits at 18-10 and 8-7 in the Big East, absolutely needs to win its next two games, at Seton Hall and at home against Marquette. (The regular season finale at Creighton, McDermott's final home game, would be a huge win RPI-wise, but it'll be a near-impossible environment in which pull off an upset.) Then the Friars will need at least one win at the Big East tournament to get even a sniff from the selection committee.
Given all that's transpired this season -- given that Cooley's joke about having to bring in the athletic director to round out the team in practice seemed a little too close to reality -- I suppose even being in the discussion is a victory. But for a program that once made six NCAA tournaments in 15 years, going a full decade without an appearance ain't good.
"I thought on Nov. 1 when we had a full roster and we were able to play a certain way, I liked our chances of winning the league," Cooley said. "That changed on Nov. 2 with injuries and suspensions."
Games like Sunday night's, when the Friars shot a blistering 66.7 percent from the field, including 13 of 20 from three-point range, will go a long way to setting things right, as will another top-notch recruiting class coming in next season. But for a coach who wants his players to focus on today, not tomorrow, the next three games will be the biggest of Cooley's career.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.