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NEW YORK â€” The hallways, runways and escalators inside Madison Square Garden come alive with Big East basketball-related chatter every March. Naturally, many folks will take the occasion at this weekâ€™s conference tournament to reflect on the end of this wildly entertaining roundball ride.
There are other specific subjects that regardless of present-day circumstances are seemingly raised without fail. How many Big East teams are locks for the NCAA Tournament? Conversely, which desperate teams need a big showing in Gotham City in order to get in the derby conversation â€“ a la Providence College? Which head coaches stand on uneasy ground and which player(s) appear ticketed to leave school early to chase NBA millions?
One particular parlor game of note that often never receives attention until after the fact is which Big East player has the best chance of going streaking in the days ahead, serving as their teamâ€™s driving force on a voyage that begins amidst clouds of improbability and culminates with a net-cutting ceremony. Think along the lines of Syracuseâ€™s Gerry McNamara in 2006 and UConnâ€™s Kemba Walker two years ago.
The aforementioned players â€“ both guards, mind you â€“ earned savior status after stringing together a series of spellbinding, â€śdid you just see that?â€ť performances. Look up the highlight tapes from those years and youâ€™ll see footage of McNamara and Walker delivering big shot after big shot with a few buzzer beaters tossed in for good measure.
In the case of McNamara and Walker, Syracuse and Connecticut needed every ounce of magic from their prized pups. The â€™06 Orange and â€™11 Huskies entered the Big East Tournament as hardly surefire bets to reach the NCAAâ€™s big stage; each was seeded ninth. Undeterred while operating beneath MSGâ€™s bright lights, McNamara and Walker connected away to the point that each took the guesswork out of the selection committeeâ€™s hands by winning the tourneyâ€™s championship.
Now that the history lesson is complete, itâ€™s time to draw parallel lines in the sand. Searching high and low for a shooting guard who holds the potential of heating up in a hurry on a Big East team that can ill afford a one-and-done outcome, Providenceâ€™s Bryce Cotton springs to mind.
â€śWhen Bryce shoots it, he can rattle them off. He can hit three or four in a row,â€ť said Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie recently.
If the eighth-seeded Friars are going to become a featured attraction at the Garden, Cotton has to follow in the footsteps of McNamara and Walker beginning with Wednesdayâ€™s noontime tip against No. 9 Cincinnati. The junior is the only one at Ed Cooleyâ€™s disposal who can go on a tear at a momentâ€™s notice. Such a reputation is only bestowed upon those with prolific range along with the ability to pull up for medium-range jumpers.
Cooley along with the PC players didnâ€™t mince words when correlating the virtues of Cotton with a lengthy NYC stay.
â€śWe need to put a (Superman) cape on Cotton,â€ť proclaimed Cooley. â€śWhen you get to tournament play, your guards carry you through. Your big men probably win you championships, but if you look at all the buzzer beaters around college basketball right now, at the end of the game itâ€™s the guards who have the ball and they make the play.â€ť
Taking the baton from Cooley, senior Vincent Council added, â€śHe can definitely take over games. I think Cotton should be able to take over whenever he wants to take over.â€ť
An extremely grounded 20-year-old, Cottonâ€™s time at Providence has seen him go from unheralded recruit to Big East scoring champ. Blessed with a quick trigger that can be fired and reloaded at any spot on the floor, Cotton agreed that special memories like the ones McNamara and Walker created are a cut above the rest due to a series of wins that accompanied their show-stopping efforts.
â€śMemories and moments like that are created in tournaments like the Big East every year. Thatâ€™s something you canâ€™t predict as a player,â€ť Cotton stated. â€śAt the end of the day, all you want to focus about is winning. Whoever gets the credit, it really doesnâ€™t matter.â€ť
Cooley agrees that Cotton enters the last hurrah of this particular eraâ€™s Big East Tournament with a bullâ€™s-eye on his back â€“ the kind with â€śFirst Team All-Big Eastâ€ť sprawled in big letters.
â€śHeâ€™s had a target for the last six weeks,â€ť quipped Providenceâ€™s second-year head coach. â€śWhen you score the ball the way he does, thereâ€™s going to be a lot of attention.â€ť
Just donâ€™t tell that to the player with a 19.6 points-per-game average and 88 3-pointers in 28 regular-season games.
â€śAny player whether theyâ€™re all conference or not, theyâ€™re pretty much highly noted on any teamâ€™s scouting report,â€ť said Cotton. â€śYouâ€™re always going to receive attention, but you canâ€™t over think stuff. The main thing is that I donâ€™t put any pressure on myself. Iâ€™m just going to continue to play the way Iâ€™ve been playing and let the results fall where they may.â€ť
As McNamara and Walker will attest, it takes a special sort to put a team on your back and rinse and repeat over the course of several consecutive days. Itâ€™s not a job for the faint of heart, rather one where the killer instinct must remain on display at all times. Time will tell if Cotton emerges as the latest shining star at the venue commonly referenced as â€śThe Worldâ€™s Most Famous Arena.â€ť
RIM RATTLERS: The Friars head to Madison Square Garden hoping for a lengthy stay for the first time in years. They enter this yearâ€™s event with just two wins in their previous 13 appearances. The last time Providence won more than one game here was 1997 when the fourth-seeded Friars beat Rutgers and West Virginia before losing to Villanova in the semifinals. PC holds a 16-31 all-time record in Big East Tournament action. â€¦ Cooley was asked if he anticipates something similar to the 54-50 rock fight PC posted against Cincinnati on Feb. 6 at The Dunk. The Bearcats were ranked 17th at the time and were unable to slow down Kadeem Batts, who carved them up for 25 points and nine rebounds. â€śIn that game we missed seven uncontested shots. We wonâ€™t do that again,â€ť Cooley said. â€śFive of those were Cottonâ€™s and he isnâ€™t going to miss many wide-open shots.â€ť â€¦ Wednesdayâ€™s winner earns a quarterfinal-round date with Big East Player of the Year Otto Porter Jr. and top-seeded Georgetown Thursday at noon.