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Bryce Cotton not taking breathers in quest to get Providence back to NCAA tourney

Bryce CottonBryce Cotton has played all but five minutes of the Friars' last 22 games. (Nate Shron/Getty)

Across the way from Bryce Cotton's childhood home at 321 E. Waverly St. in Tucson, Ariz., there was a large park. It has a proper name, Mansfield Park, but Cotton and his friends just called it The Park. Before moving to the other side of town made visits more sporadic, Cotton walked to The Park to play basketball every summer day. He began playing in the morning and stayed until sundown, avoiding the notorious slick spots on the courts. He did not stop at any point in between, not even in blast-furnace heat, and usually not at all until his mother showed up to drag him away.

"If anything, I may have taken a 10-minute break and went to the vending machine and grabbed some chips," Cotton said. "And that's when they finally built a gym (there) when I was in high school. When I was a kid, there were no breaks."

He has migrated from ill-kept outdoor courts on the northwest side of Tuscon to Providence College, and he is as reluctant to step off the court now as he was then. Following two years of heavy duty, Cotton now has logged 1,207 minutes in 30 games in his senior season with the Friars. That averages out to 40.233 minutes per night. There are only 40 minutes in any regulation basketball game. When Providence's leading scorer takes the floor, it is expected he will never leave it, and maybe then some.

The unusual stat stems from Providence's six overtime games (four of which went to a second overtime). In those four double-overtime outings, Cotton played 200 minutes of a possible 200 minutes. His production is just as tireless for the 20-10 Friars, with his averages of 21.7 points and 5.9 assists per game fueling the push for the school's first NCAA tournament berth since 2004. Providence has a chance to make a statement Saturday against Creighton and Doug McDermott, the guy almost impossible to displace for Big East player of the year honors.

"We have the best player in the country in our conference in McDermott," Friars coach Ed Cooley said on a teleconference last month, "and the most valuable player in the country at Providence College."

It may be futile to convince anyone of the difference. But Cotton will try. If his basketball career suggests anything, it's that he's not going anywhere.

"That's just required of us to do, night in and night out," Cotton said. "I'm sure there are points throughout the game where I may be a little tired, but I do what I can to make sure I don't show it."

The last player to go the distance every night was Notre Dame's Chris Quinn, who averaged exactly 40 minutes per game in 2005-06. The circumstances are more unusual than the feat: A team starved enough for depth, and a top player physically and mentally equipped for the burden.

Quinn remembered lugging jugs of water or Gatorade to class to hydrate properly. For 60 to 90 minutes on game days or the day after, he'd drink constantly in an effort to keep any inflammation down. And then he resigned himself to limited rest time. "It came to the point where I expected not to come out much, or at all," said Quinn, who is now director of player development at Northwestern. "I approached the game that way. A lot of times, if you tell yourself you're tired, you're going to play tired."

A thin roster with a conscientious star? This is both Providence, which effectively uses a six-man rotation, and a bit of providence: Cotton has always passed endurance tests.

The day-long exhibitions at The Park were not unusual for any young, basketball-obsessed talent. Unusual is a high school junior turning into his own personal nutritionist. At that point, Cotton said he recognized the opportunity before him and how much his health was a factor. He was already a picky eater, so the household cupboards were not overstocked with a wide variety of options. But he asked his mother for more healthy fare and began avoiding fried items. "As I was trying to take it up to another notch, I wanted to make sure I was going to to be the best me I could be," Cotton said.

It all transitioned to Providence, where Cotton averaged 15.3 minutes as a freshman before moving into the starting lineup and averaging 38.6 and 37.8 minutes per game in his sophomore and junior seasons, respectively. The aversion to fried food and sugary juices remains. He is sure to hydrate intelligently and routinely when he is away from the court, and his diet is focused: Sandwiches, chicken, fish and rice, mostly. His go-to meal is a recipe for a Portuguese rice and grilled tilapia.

During the season, conditioning is maintenance. Cotton takes regular ice baths and tries to stay off his feet as much as he can. But in the offseason, conditioning is hell. His workouts generally last an hour to an hour and a half and involve standard shooting and ball-handling drills. But it is one drill to the next without a pause. Not even for water. "I literally go through the workout non-stop," Cotton said. "And when I'm done, I'm done."

If Cotton gets tired during games, he lets Cooley know. No one heads to the scorer's table; Cooley will burn a timeout to let his star guard catch his breath. But typically, when Cotton feels fatigue set in, he checks the clock and convinces himself that he'll be all right until the next official media break. The fewest minutes he's played this year? Twenty-nine, in a 45-point rout of Brown in mid-November. He has played 96.6 percent of the possible minutes this season, missed just one minute in the past 15 games and sat out only five minutes total of game action since the start of December.

Cotton feels the same weariness others do. It's just that, like Quinn said, he convinces himself he's immune to it. "It's basically tricking my body into believing I'm still as fresh as I was at the beginning of the season," Cotton said. "Honestly, that's all it comes down to. Mental toughness can really take you a long way, especially when it comes down to conditioning your body."

It has brought Cotton and Providence this far, to the cusp of an NCAA tournament breakthrough a decade in the making. The last two years of travails included prized recruit Ricky Ledo's ineligibility issues and guard Kris Dunn's multiple shoulder surgeries, stunting the Friars' growth. Without those issues, Cotton's workload would be easier in every sense. Instead, he's now counted on to provide more minutes than are regularly scheduled for any given night. He didn't even realize he'd cracked the 40-minute-a-night barrier until some friends from Arizona informed him.

"That's something I never heard of before," Cotton said. "It's pretty cool to know I'm doing that."

An NCAA tournament berth would be more gratifying. An upset victory at Creighton would enhance Providence's chances of escaping the bubble and punctuating the resurrection of the program.

Cotton surely has put in the time for it.

"This is something we've had in mind all year," he said. "We want to be the team to bring a winning culture back to Providence College. This team and this program hasn't tasted the blue (NCAA backstage) carpet in 10 years. We want to be the team to break the streak."

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