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Providence ends all bubble talk in New York

March 16, 2014 Columns No Comments

NEW YORK – There will be plenty of good stories with teams that are in the NCAA Tournament, as usual. Few will be as good as that of Providence, who won the Big East Tournament on Saturday night by knocking off Creighton 65-58 in the championship game.

There’s the well-documented story of how Providence has had to make do with very little. Injuries and suspensions have gutted this team’s roster to the point where the Friars basically play six players, with the only thing resembling a backup guard being walk-on Ted Bancroft. They won Saturday’s game with six players getting on the court. It’s something they have had to do seemingly since Ed Cooley took over the program, as they have been snakebit with injuries often.

And at the end of it all, the person who might have needed a breather the most wasn’t one of those six players.

“I’m gassed,” said Cooley.

Cooley is normally not a man of few words, but he didn’t seem his usual self in the post-game on Saturday night. Normally energetic, he looked and sounded exhausted. A Providence person through and through, he famously “sprinted home” to Providence when he took over. He grew up there, where the Big East lived in its formative years, where Dave Gavitt changed basketball in a big way with the Big East. He appreciates what the Big East is all about. This is something he has dreamed of. He seemed overwhelmed by winning the championship, and perhaps in part he was amazed once more by how his team put forth a winning effort with everything that was working against them.

He also drew from a guy he learned from in that same building. Al Skinner talked to him earlier in the day, and Cooley thought about the simple words his former boss had for him.

“He told me, ‘Don’t over-coach,'” Cooley recalled. “Let your kids do it. Give them a game plan, and I promise you, they’ll follow it.”

The epitome of this team’s success against adversity and opponents is as good a story as any, and now more people across the country will find about him. Bryce Cotton is the best player in the Big East not named Doug McDermott, who was ironically on the other side on Saturday night. He’s been overshadowed seemingly his whole life, from growing up in Tucson to playing for a Providence team that hasn’t sniffed the NCAA Tournament until now. How many people know he led the Big East in scoring last season? How many people know he led the Big East in assists this season? And how many people know he leads the nation in minutes? (Cooley likes to go a little further and say he “leads the world in minutes.”)

Besides having to play 40 minutes per game, and averaging 42 per game in Big East play, Cotton has had to play out of position. The fact that he’s a natural shooting guard might explain his under-recruitment out of high school to some degree, but it also says a lot about how he developed in college. He’s played 96.3 percent of available minutes this season, almost all of them with the ball in his hands.

“To play the minutes that he’s played this season and have the responsibility on his shoulders that he has, not only needing to score, but to also run the team, it’s a real credit to him,” said Creighton head coach Greg McDermott. “He’s done a terrific job, and it’s fitting that he’s going to end his career in the NCAA Tournament.”

Providence looked like a team that should earn its way to the NCAA Tournament before the season. There has never been any doubt about this team’s effort all year; they have simply been a little short on a few occasions because of personnel issues. Providence has been right there in some games, but didn’t break through, hence their position on the bubble entering the Big East Tournament. They let a couple get away which, if they didn’t make it to the NCAA Tournament, they could look back on and say, “What if?” Saturday night’s win eliminated bubble talk and blessed college basketball fans with a good story in the Friars making it.

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