The steal was Bryce Cotton’s “One Shining Moment.”
With 6:10 remaining in 11-seed Providence’s NCAA Tournament second round matchup with 6-seed UNC, the 6-0 guard flew out of no where, skied over three feet in the air and picked off Tar Heels sophomore forward Brice Johnson’s half-court outlet pass intended for Marcus Paige. When the TNT broadcast showed the replay, Cotton’s ass had clearly ascended to Paige’s eye-level.
“I was just reading the guy’s eyes and I anticipated the pass he was going to throw a split-second before he threw it,” Cotton says.
The feat of ridiculous athleticism and court awareness sent the AT&T Center crowd and commentators Marv Albert and Steve Kerr into a frenzy, but it merely scratched the surface of the senior point guard’s epic performance. While that steal will live on in GIFs, Vines and YouTube videos for eternity, Cotton was a thorn in UNC head coach Roy Williams’ side all evening long.
He scored the game’s first points on a back-door cut, but only after hanging in the air longer than UNC’s 6-5 forward JP Tokoto. He pulled up in transition from three-point land on two occasions, swinging his left foot forward before launching into his shot once his right foot planted just behind the line. He crossed over Paige, bounced into the paint, twisted his body through UNC’s airborne big men and spun the ball high off the glass like an in-his-prime Allen Iverson. He found several teammates filling a lane in transition. His steal and flying finish with 1:18 left to play put Providence up 77-74.
He finished with a line of 36 points (a career-high), 8 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. But as he bobbled the long rebound off James Michael McAdoo’s missed free throw as time expired, his college career was over.
Bryce Cotton grew up in Tucson, AZ. When he was 4 years old, he started running laps around a 400-meter track during his older brother’s nearby baseball practices. When he was in fifth grade, and he received his mother Yvonne’s blessing to cross the street on his own, he hooped on the court his grandmother built opposite the road from his house.
Mary Portley, Cotton’s grandmother, worked for the Tucson parks and recreation department and helped organize the construction of a park with a basketball court on the other side of the street from Cotton’s house.
Flash forward to high school and the floater Cotton says he daily worked at on that court was dropping in every game. But despite earning Tucson All-City team honors his senior year in high school and earning a reputation for his athleticism and quickness on the AAU circuit, he hadn’t received any legitimate division I scholarship consideration. At 6-foot, 163 pounds, few, if any, believed Cotton could perform at the next level.
“A couple schools had reached out, but nobody offered,” Cotton remembers. “I would get one call and then never hear from them again. I’ve always had to overcome obstacles, I’ve always flown under the radar and I’ve always had to prove people wrong to get to where I’m at.”
After Cotton trekked to Chestnut Hill, MA, for Boston College’s annual spring Elite Camp for one last shot to impress college scouts, the Eagles coaching staff delivered a harsh blow.
“They basically told me I just wasn’t good enough to be on their team,” Cotton says. “That’s when it hurt the most, but that’s when I worked super hard because that’s all you can possibly do in situations like that. No matter what pans out with the situation, you can never give up.”
Back home in Tucson, he spent every day in the gym while planning to enroll at nearby Pima Community College. But on August 28, Cotton checked his cell phone after his latest run of pickup and drills. Chris Davis, who was then an assistant to then-Providence head coach Keno Davis, came across ArizonaPreps.com, a site that promotes high school basketball players in the state. He saw Cotton win a dunk contest over future Arizona State standout Jahii Carson and was impressed by the additional film Cotton had sent him.
Cotton had an unread text message on his phone that afternoon. Providence had offered him a scholarship just three days before freshman orientation started on September 1, 2010.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. It was one of the happiest days of my life,” Cotton says. “I had heard so many runaround stories from colleges, it didn’t really sink in until I actually signed the letter of intent.”
But Cotton struggled in his freshman season with the Friars, only scoring 4.0 points in 15.3 minutes per game coming off the bench. He couldn’t break through in a rotation that featured MarShon Brooks, Vincent Council, Gerard Coleman and Duke Mondy.
Cotton’s doubters, who he says were “quite a few,” looked like geniuses.
“I didn’t focus on that because I had so much support back home and I was just so grateful that I was awarded a scholarship,” Cotton says. “I was going to do anything I could to make sure Providence wouldn’t regret giving me a chance.”
After the Friars went 15-17 in 2010-11, Providence fired Davis following his third year with the program, second-straight losing campaign and what was reported as “several off-the-court issues.”
That paved the way from Ed Cooley to take over the helm. When Cooley surveyed his inherited roster that retained Council, Coleman and Cotton in the backcourt after Brooks left for the NBA and Mondy transferred to Oakland University, the coach licked his chops. He saw something exciting in Cotton.
“Keno and his staff deserve all the credit for recognizing his talent,” Cooley said. “Bryce just didn’t have the confidence and we had to instill that confidence in him by putting him in position to be aggressive.”
Cooley’s guidance and scheme unlocked Cotton’s potential. He started all 32 of the Friar’s games in 2011-12, averaging 14.3 points per game on 46 percent shooting as an off-the-ball scorer. In 2012-13 with Coleman transferring to Gonzaga, Council took a backseat to Cotton’s scoring ability, allowing him to average 19.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 37.8 minutes per game in his junior stint. When Providence visited BC that winter, he went off for 33 points on 7-14 shooting from three-point land.
He couldn’t make the Eagles’ roster, but he could sure as hell light them up.
“I never had any ill feelings for the school or the staff,” Cotton said. “I had been through so much at that point just to get to college, I didn’t want to channel my energy toward a school that passed up on me because it’s not like they were the only one to do it. I just wanted to make sure I did everything I could for Providence, the school that decided to take a chance on me.”
The Friars finished the season 19-15 before bowing out to a loaded Baylor squad in the NIT quarterfinals.
Before Cotton brought the Friars back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years this past spring, an electric point guard named God Shammgod guided Providence to the Big Dance in 1997. With his nifty ball-handling and creative passing, Shammgod became a national sensation and ultimately brought the Friars to the Elite 8 that March before they fell to Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Arizona by four points.
Shammgod’s handles were and are legendary. SLAM’s done its part in documenting his gospel play. Everyone from Manu Ginobili to Chris Paul to Uncle Drew has broken ankles using the dribble move simply dubbed “The Shammgod.” There was even a cheat-code to perform the crossover in NBA 2K12.
Shammgod’s signature move was simple, yet deadly. He would fling the ball forward in front of his right hip with his right hand, snap it back across is body with his left and slither around his helpless defender.
His handle and playmaking ability allowed Shammgod to leave Providence after just two seasons—the second of which capped off by that Elite 8 appearance—and get drafted by the Washington Wizards in the second round (45th overall) in the 1997 NBA Draft. Shammgod would only play 20 games in his rookie season, 1997-98, and it proved to be his last in the NBA.
From there, he embarked on a global journey in which he’d play in Poland, China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the CBA, the USBL and the IBL. He was a sensation wherever he played. But no matter what the crowd’s native tongue, Shammgod’s spectators ogled at how he let his handle do his talking.
Shamgood returned to Providence’s campus in September 2012. His playing career was over and he wanted to pursue his college degree. He’s taking classes today to fulfill his major in leadership and is set to graduate in December.
“We’re really proud of Shamm,” Cooley says. “I think he’s a success story for many young kids that come in to the NBA early, have some tough times, but come back and realize how important their education is, so congrats to Shamm.”
While studying on campus, Shammgod also became an unpaid student manager with the men’s basketball team, where he and Cotton formed a special connection.
After Council graduated in 2013, sophomore Kris Dunn, who Cooley recruited to take over the keys of the program, was expected to start at point guard for the Friars. But Dunn injured his shoulder and played just four games for the Friars this season. Cooley decided to slide Cotton into the starting point guard slot. He had already been working with Shammgod over the offseason on his handle, making reads off pick-and-rolls and finishing in the paint.
“I’ve just given him the knowledge that I know, being a pure point guard,” Shammgod says. “He already had the instincts and the skillset to do it, it was just about somebody just telling him the small things and coach putting him in that position to play the point.”
Cotton says he played point guard all of his life before he got to Providence and just became more of a scorer after the coaching staff asked him to do so. No matter what position Cotton held, Cooley’s goal was to put him in spots to succeed.
“We just needed to get him to believe in what we were teaching and put him in positions to stay aggressive—running sets to get him shots,” the coach says. “By the time he became a senior, when he was the primary ball handler, he was such a threat in ball screens and such a threat with his quickness and his ability to score and pass. He became almost unstoppable.”
In 2013-14—which he kicked off by dropping 28 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists on, you guessed it, Boston College—Cotton led the Big East in assists at 5.9 per game, good for 19th in the country. He ranked second in the conference in scoring (21.4 ppg) behind only Doug McDermott (26.9 ppg), good for ninth in the nation. And, he led the NCAA in minutes per game at 39.6.
While leading the Friars to the Big East Tournament championship, he averaged 17.7 points and 5 assists in three games before capping off his career against UNC.
“When there was an opportunity for me to play point guard again, I was able to showcase that this year as well,” Cotton said. “Whether I’m at the 2 or the point, I’m just an unselfish player by nature. If I was open and I saw I had a good look, I would take the shot, if I didn’t I would pass the ball just like I did this year as a point guard.”
Cotton is now preparing for the 2014 NBA Draft as strictly a point guard, working with Shammgod every day at the Providence facilities. If you go to YouTube, Shammgod’s ability to teach is craft is nearly as special as it was to see him dribble in his prime.
“I’m putting him through drills I made up and stuff that I do,” Shammgod says. “It’s all game stuff like pick-and-roll pull-backs, pick-and-roll bounce passes, pick-and-rolls where I’m [physically] pushing him so he can feel that defensive presence. We do a lot of one handed shuffle passes, one-handed behind the back passes, two handed-passes, stuff like that.”
Shammgod is confident in Cotton’s ability to not only make the League, but his chances at excelling in it.
“I think he’s going to get drafted. I think he can come in and contribute right now,” Shammgod says. “He’s gonna do whatever the team needs him to do and I think the way to the NBA is now, instead of being a pure point guard, he’s a lead guard—someone who can distribute but is also an explosive scorer.
“He can play the pick and roll like Chris Paul, his mid-range game is phenomenal, his floater is phenomenal, like Tony Parker’s. And I think he’s going to get better and better because he’s like a sponge.”
With him, Cotton will bring an impressive 40-inch vertical he jumped at the Clippers Workout earlier this month. He says he’s maxed out at 42 inches. Cooley believes Cotton has the skill set for the NBA as well.
“I think his best basketball is yet to come. He’s just scratching the surface.” Cooley says. “[His strengths are] his ability to shoot and his ability to play off of ball screen. I think whoever picks him and uses him to his strengths that ties into the team philosophy, they’re going to find they have a great player, but an even better person.”
Getting drafted is just one more hurdle for Cotton to leap over.
“As I’m noticing throughout this draft process, it’s the same scenario where I have to go out there and prove my worth again because there’s just a lot of doubt with my ability,” Cotton says. “This is a road I’ve been down before and that’s what’s helping me get to this point in my life because it’s always kept me very humble and let me know that I have to work hard because nothing will ever be given to me.”