NEW YORK — 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 week’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 – 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 team’s driving force on a voyage that begins amidst clouds of improbability and culminates with a net-cutting ceremony. Think along the lines of Syracuse’s Gerry McNamara in 2006 and UConn’s Kemba Walker two years ago.
The aforementioned players – both guards, mind you – earned savior status after stringing together a series of spellbinding, “did you just see that?” performances. Look up the highlight tapes from those years and you’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 ’06 Orange and ’11 Huskies entered the Big East Tournament as hardly surefire bets to reach the NCAA’s big stage; each was seeded ninth. Undeterred while operating beneath MSG’s bright lights, McNamara and Walker connected away to the point that each took the guesswork out of the selection committee’s hands by winning the tourney’s championship.
Now that the history lesson is complete, it’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, Providence’s Bryce Cotton springs to mind.
“When Bryce shoots it, he can rattle them off. He can hit three or four in a row,” 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 Wednesday’s noontime tip against No. 9 Cincinnati. The junior is the only one at Ed Cooley’s disposal who can go on a tear at a moment’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 didn’t mince words when correlating the virtues of Cotton with a lengthy NYC stay.
“We need to put a (Superman) cape on Cotton,” proclaimed Cooley. “When 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 it’s the guards who have the ball and they make the play.”
Taking the baton from Cooley, senior Vincent Council added, “He can definitely take over games. I think Cotton should be able to take over whenever he wants to take over.”
An extremely grounded 20-year-old, Cotton’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.
“Memories and moments like that are created in tournaments like the Big East every year. That’s something you can’t predict as a player,” Cotton stated. “At the end of the day, all you want to focus about is winning. Whoever gets the credit, it really doesn’t matter.”
Cooley agrees that Cotton enters the last hurrah of this particular era’s Big East Tournament with a bull’s-eye on his back – the kind with “First Team All-Big East” sprawled in big letters.
“He’s had a target for the last six weeks,” quipped Providence’s second-year head coach. “When you score the ball the way he does, there’s going to be a lot of attention.”
Just don’t tell that to the player with a 19.6 points-per-game average and 88 3-pointers in 28 regular-season games.
“Any player whether they’re all conference or not, they’re pretty much highly noted on any team’s scouting report,” said Cotton. “You’re always going to receive attention, but you can’t over think stuff. The main thing is that I don’t put any pressure on myself. I’m just going to continue to play the way I’ve been playing and let the results fall where they may.”
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. It’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 “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
RIM RATTLERS: The Friars head to Madison Square Garden hoping for a lengthy stay for the first time in years. They enter this year’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. … 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. “In that game we missed seven uncontested shots. We won’t do that again,” Cooley said. “Five of those were Cotton’s and he isn’t going to miss many wide-open shots.” … Wednesday’s winner earns a quarterfinal-round date with Big East Player of the Year Otto Porter Jr. and top-seeded Georgetown Thursday at noon.