EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog was written by Javier Morales with assistance from high school sports reporter Andy Morales.
Bryce Cotton became speechless earlier today while he gathered his thoughts. He chuckled from disbelief.
Those who observed his career-high 36-point performance for Providence against North Carolina Friday night had the same reaction.
Cotton learned in my phone interview today that his scoring output against the Tar Heels in a 79-77 loss is the most by a Tucson-area high school player in the history of the NCAA tournament. His 36 points in the first round game at San Antonio eclipsed the 31 scored by Cholla legend Sean Elliott for Arizona against Oklahoma in the 1988 Final Four.
“Man … I did not know that,” Cotton said. “That puts a smile on my face. It’s very cool to be mentioned in the same breath as Sean Elliott.
“My brother’s dad, who is like a stepdad to me, is a good friend of Sean Elliott and his family. Wow … to be mentioned in the same breath with Sean Elliott … that’s a tremendous compliment.”
Cotton’s path to prosperity from Palo Verde is much different than the road taken by Elliott from Cholla. Lute Olson was fortunate that Elliott, the city’s most storied basketball player, was so talented that other programs shied away from recruiting him. Olson’s rivals knew they did not stand a chance of signing Elliott away from the Arizona program.
Cotton did not get a look from Arizona coach Sean Miller and his staff. To Miller’s defense, nobody else did either.
In a last-ditch effort to get Cotton a basketball scholarship, his brother Justin Tarpley contacted a former high school teacher in Tucson who was a basketball manager at Providence. Tarpley provided a highlight reel of Cotton, including a tape of the 6’1″ guard beating ASU leaper Jahii Carson in a dunk contest.
A member of former coach Keno Davis’ staff at Providence contacted Cotton, who made it to the East coast barely in time for orientation in late August entering his freshman year in 2010.
HIGHEST NCAA TOURNAMENT SCORERS FROM TUCSON AREA
Information from research compiled by AllSportsTucson.com
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“I honestly don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t get the call from Providence,” Cotton told me. “I came close to enrolling at Pima and going from there. Who knows where I’d be right now?
“As it turned out, I got the opportunity of a lifetime, playing in a major conference like the Big East. I got a Division I scholarship only three days before the orientation session at Providence. I didn’t have anything to bargain with because nobody else offered, so I took the opportunity and ran with it. It was a blessing from God.”
Cotton is certainly Arizona worthy with his Big East most outstanding player award after leading Providence to the conference tournament title. He ranks fourth on Providence’s career scoring list with 1,975 points. His 763 points this season are 20 more than Elliott’s best season with the Wildcats (743 points in 1987-88).
Two of Tucson’s best players in recent years — Cotton and Santa Rita’s Terrell Stoglin — went elsewhere. Stoglin also headed east to Maryland without much recognition from Arizona or West coast programs. Cotton cheered for Arizona as a child — his uncle is former Wildcat running back standout David Adams — but he does not begrudge the lost opportunity to play for his hometown university.
“At the time, I couldn’t care less who didn’t take an interest in me … I just wanted to be part of a program,” Cotton said. “Everything happens for a reason. Things go up and down but you work them out. What happened to me has God written all over it.
“I prided myself on taking advantage of the opportunity presented to me by Providence. I endured tough circumstances in my career and I’ve been able to succeed. That’s a characteristic I’ll always have. I will always believe in myself no matter the situation.”
Cotton’s former coach at Palo Verde, Pima women’s basketball assistant coach Chris Klassen, is a believer.
While communicating to my brother Andy Morales, Klassen proclaimed that he is “100 percent Cotton!” after flying to San Antonio and watching Cotton’s performance against North Carolina.
“Coaching Bryce was too fun,” Klassen messaged my brother, who covers high school sports for AllSportsTucson.com. “It’s rare that you get a chance to coach a kid that is super talented, a good student, works harder than anyone and is also one of the most humble respectful young men there is.
“I was truly blessed. As he has moved onto college, we have become very close friends and speak at least four times a week. He and his mom Yvonne are family. Getting the chance to go watch him in the NCAA tournament was just surreal! And the fact that he dominated that game and almost single- handedly beat UNC was something that I will never forget.”
Klassen and Cotton’s family and friends, some of whom had yet to see Cotton play in college, stayed up until the early-morning hours Saturday in San Antonio celebrating Cotton’s career. In the day before the game against North Carolina, Cotton spent valuable time with Klassen, whom he considers a mentor.
“Honestly, the best part of that trip was the three hours we spent together just him and I Thursday night just talking about life and how crazy everything has been for both of us,” Klassen said. “And then Friday night after the game spending time with him, Yvonne, his brother Justin, his step dad and uncle just talking and laughing until 3:30 a.m. was priceless.
“It was a trip from start to finish that I will always remember and cherish for the rest of my life.”
Cotton was given the chance to show his skills at Providence but it was Klassen who opened the door of opportunity for the Palo Verde star.
“He is a tremendous influence on me,” Cotton said. “I’ve known him since middle school. We would always talk basketball. He is the first coach who let me play the game. He saw my raw abilities my senior year and just let me play my game.
“He let me loose and gave me the chance to show what I could do. He’s a big part of the reason why all this other stuff has happened.”
Cotton said he has modeled his game after Mike Bibby, the former Phoenix Shadow Mountain standout who engineered Arizona’s championship run as the starting point guard in 1997.
Cotton, who was born on Aug. 11, 1992, was not quite 5 years old when the Wildcats won the national title. He gained more of an appreciation of Bibby’s skills through videos and watching him in the NBA.
“Growing up, my brother and my family had U of A games on the television all of the time and they wore U of A t-shirts,” Cotton said. “I remember when I was a little kid that Mike Bibby and a lot of those guys played really well. That’s when I really started to follow the U of A.
“When I found out Bibby was from Arizona, I liked him even more. I loved watching him in the pros. He had the kind of skills as a point guard that I wanted to emulate.”
Despite having to play in college 2,500 miles away, Cotton continues to call Tucson home. He visited annually every August during his Providence career. He said, however, that he limits his support to Providence. He will not cheer for the Wildcats tonight against Gonzaga.
“Growing up, my brother and my family had U of A games on the television all of the time and they wore U of A t-shirts. I remember when I was a little kid that Mike Bibby and a lot of those guys played really well. That’s when I really started to follow the U of A. When I found out Bibby was from Arizona, I liked him even more. I loved watching him in the pros. He had the kind of skills as a point guard that I wanted to emulate.” — Bryce Cotton
“I haven’t cheered for another team since I came to Providence,” Cotton said. “The only team that I hope that wins is Providence.”
In his bio at the Providence official Web site, Cotton says in a video, “I’m from Tucson, Arizona. It’s a great city. Not too many people know about it. It’s a place I love to call home.”
“I take so much pride being from Tucson,” Cotton told me. “Not a lot of kids there get the opportunity to play college basketball.
“I am so happy to be at this point in my life where I can share my experiences with friends and family from Tucson. I was honored to have them come out and see me play in San Antonio. I was very hurt that we lost, but I had a good showing for my family. I really wish we could’ve won. It would have been the icing on the cake.”
Cotton took with him instead a game for the ages in Providence and Tucson-area basketball history.
His 36-point, eight-assist performance in 40 minutes was such that North Carolina coach Roy Williams, a 25-year veteran who has two national titles to his credit, proclaimed that he has rarely seen better. During the postgame press conference, Williams compared Cotton’s performance to the greatest against him with the likes of Lindsey Hunter, Anthony Peeler, Bryant Reeves, Randy Rutherford and Tyrese Rice.
“Bryce Cotton played one of the best games I’ve ever had anybody play against us,” Williams said. “My whole thought defensively was what can we do to stop him? I think you look at that line. I mean, 13 for 23 (from the field), 7 for 7 (from the free throw line), 8 assists, that was as good a performance as any of those other ones that I gave you, even though they scored more points because he was truly dominating the game.”
Cotton’s reaction to Williams’ comments was similar to how he responded about learning that he is the highest scoring Tucson product in an NCAA tournament game.
“That was very humbling to me because he is such a great coach with a lot of notoriety,” Cotton said.
The next step in Cotton’s blossoming career is a potential shot in the NBA. DraftExpress.com does not have Cotton in its mock 2014 draft. Once again, he must come out of nowhere to get noticed.
No reason to doubt him. He belongs in the same sentence as Elliott. That alone is enough to believe.
He is 100 percent Cotton but there is nothing soft about him.
“I’m at a point now in my game that I can fine tune everything,” Cotton said. “I will approach things the same way in my preparation now that my college career is over. I will continue to work hard on different aspects of my game. I know I can continue to get better.
“I’ll find out if I can get invites to workouts (by NBA teams) and of course I’ll be there working my hardest and trying my best. I look forward to that challenge.”